Friday, March 8, 2019 - Naomi Osaka practices during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
Coming into the southern Californian desert this week, Naomi Osaka’s last tour-level match was a loss. But not just any loss – a bad one at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. She struggled to hold both her serve and her emotions together in what she admitted to press later as her being “notoriously tough” on herself. The 6-3, 6-3 loss to France’s Kristina Mladenovic was certainly one for Osaka to forget about.
That is, until Mladenovic appeared as her first opponent at the BNP Paribas Open – a match that’s set to take place on Monday’s evening session.
The head-to-head is even at 1-1, with the now world-famous Japanese claiming their first encounter – also in Dubai, incidentally… must be something about deserts for the draw gods – while the 25-year-old Frenchwoman owns their most recent and certainly more impactful of the two.
That match will be lingering over top-seeded Osaka, as it was her first as No. 1 in the world and, in her second, she’ll be playing the exact same player with the exact same weapons but possibly more confidence.
Mladenovic’s game has always been confidence based. At her best, she can hit all the shots in the book and have crowds on their feet thanks to multilingual victory shows and blonde-imbued fist-pump twirls. However, the former world No. 10 now sits at No. 65, and hasn’t been able to summon the shots needed for consistent results on tour as of late.
Can Osaka steady her ship, even with waves of their last encounter, the demands of the game’s top spot, and the pressure of defending a title for the first time crashing against her? The very fact that she was able to claim consecutive Grand Slams at the US Open and Australian Open seems to suggest so – but in tennis, anything can happen.
Only time will tell.