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Two Keys to Osaka's AO Title Defense

By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, January 13, 2022

Naomi Osaka is the queen of first-strike tennis.

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If Osaka is to successfully defend her Australian Open title, she'll needed to excel in two key areas: First serve and first week.

Osaka, who has won two of the last three Australian Open titles, opens against Camilia Osorio. A third-round test could pit Osaka against either Olympic gold-medal champion Belinda Bencic, who has beaten the Japanese three times in four meetings, or former Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova.

The tennis world is buzzing about potential AO fourth-round blockbuster battle between world No. 1 Ash Barty and former No. 1 Osaka if both women get there.

The question remains is Osaka, who withdrew from the Melbourne Summer Set semifinals due to an abdominal injury, fully healthy and fit enough to defend?

ESPN analysts Pam Shriver and Brad Gilbert say Osaka is clearly a contender and will be an even bigger one if she beats Barty to get through week one.

"She has to be talked about as a contender in this era of women's tennis, for sure," Shriver told the media in a Zoom call to promote ESPN's Australian Open coverage starting Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN. "Barty is an established No. 1 and she's playing in her home country, but Osaka certainly has to be in your group.

"I feel like she's had enough of a pause from that disaster of a loss to Fernandez that started Fernandez' roll through to the finals when Osaka had the meltdown and just said what you paraphrased, I think she's had a long enough time to reset, this many months. While I don't think she's in the same condition that she was when she was winning her two US Opens and even a year ago, she's not in the same shape, she can, like Serena, I think, over a course of two weeks, she can play her way into better shape. Not the same confidence as say a year ago, but I'd give her a chance."

Tennis Express

Former world No. 4 Gilbert says given Osaka's lack of match play compared to other contenders, her first serve is even more vital because it will empower her to play shorter points if the Melbourne hard courts are playiing fast. Then there's the fact every time Osaka has reached the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam she's gone on to win the title.

"The stomach issue for a tennis player can be of big concern because there's not one shot, potentially if she has tweaked it, that you can fudge around having an abdominal injury," Gilbert said. "If she's okay, 70, 80 percent, it's like two tournaments. 

"But if she can get through the first week, the courts are apparently playing incredibly quick, which will benefit the way she plays. If she can get through the first week, listen, I'd say there's 10 to 15 that can win this tournament, but she's probably in the upper three to four because of the surface and it being quick. But that whole first week for her is crucial and just kind of getting that confidence, and she's had time away, but if she can win three matches in that first week, she could be in position for the second week."

Photo credit: Getty