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Naomi Osaka loses to Angelique Kerber, near elimination at WTA Finals

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

World No. 4 Naomi Osaka hopes to find a remedy for her misfiring serve after a heartbreaking three-set defeat to Angelique Kerber, a result which puts her on the brink of elimination at the WTA Finals.

The U.S. Open champion fell to No. 1 seed Kerber 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in 2 hours and 30 minutes at Singapore Indoor Stadium on Wednesday.

Winless Osaka can still qualify for the semifinals but will need to beat eighth seeded Kiki Bertens in her final round-robin match on Friday and rely on other results in red group to get through.

The hard-hitting Osaka struggled on serve throughout against Kerber and had a first serve percentage of 50 for the match, which plummeted to just 44 percent in the deciding set.

The rising superstar lamented her woes on serve.

“I feel like this match was sort of a continuation of my last match in a way. . . that I didn’t serve well,” she told reporters.

“I feel like I’m not really sure how that’s going wrong, and I want to practice it.

“In a way I’m proud of myself for being able to make the matches so close without really having a first serve.”

After rallying back in the second set, Osaka appeared to have the momentum in the third before fading against the experienced Kerber.

“I think in the third set I started hesitating, because I felt like if I went down the line . . . she would get it, and then maybe she would hit a running winner,” she said.

The 21-year-old clutched at her left hamstring on several occasions but said she would continue in the tournament.

“It doesn’t feel good. It’s nothing that concerning, I think,” she said.

“It’s the last tournament of the year, so of course I’m going to play my matches.”

In the late match, Sloane Stephens continued her dream debut at the eight-woman event when the American moved to the brink of the semifinals after she rallied for a 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 6-3 victory over fellow tournament rookie Bertens.

The second match was a slow burner, with the crowd taking time to warm to the contest, as Stephens raced into a 3-0 lead before Bertens dragged herself back thanks to some clever changes of pace and direction.

Improved serving from both players ensured the opener went to a tiebreak and after Stephens staked another 3-0 lead, the American edged ahead on her third set point when Bertens sent a forehand into the tram lines.

Bertens capitalized on a rapid drop in intensity from Stephens to reel off four games in a row on her way to taking the second set.

The Dutchwoman carried that momentum into the start of the decider, breaking to move 2-0 ahead, but Stephens finally awoke from her slumber after looking flat for a half a dozen games to reassert her authority and close out a memorable victory.

“I just tried my best from the very first point of the final set. It didn’t go my way immediately but I just kept battling and I’m really pleased to pull through,” Stephens said.

Dimitrov out early in Vienna

In Vienna, world No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov had his Vienna Open debut cut short by Mikhail Kukushkin on Wednesday, losing 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to the experienced Kazakh in the opening round.

The Bulgarian third seed, playing only his third Tour match since a first-round exit at the U.S. Open, struggled to contain a tricky opponent who deservedly pocketed his first victory over a top-10 player for four years.

Eighth seed Kyle Edmund maintained his strong run of form as he battled past Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman in his opening match, three days after beating Gael Monfils to register his first ATP Tour title in Antwerp, Belgium.

The British player won 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) to set up a last-16 clash with Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco, who scraped past Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert after losing a first-set tiebreak the previous day.

Italian Fabio Fognini was bundled out in the second round in three sets by Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics, who now faces either Kukushkin or young Russian Andrey Rublev.

Another in-form Russian, Karen Khachanov, beat Austrian wildcard Dennis Novak 6-3, 7-5.