Tennis

Naomi Osaka gets revenge against Kristina Mladenovic at Indian Wells

AFP-JIJI, AP

World No. 1 Naomi Osaka launched her title defense at the BNP Paribas Open with a 6-3, 6-4 victory in a grudge match against Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday.

Osaka, whose second straight Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January propelled her to the top of the rankings, was beaten by 65th-ranked Mladenovic in Dubai last month in her first match since lifting the trophy in Melbourne.

Eager to avoid a repeat, Osaka marched through the opening set in 38 minutes, but hit a speed bump as she was broken when serving for the match at 5-2 in the second.

After Mladenovic held serve to narrow the deficit to 5-4, the Japanese player faced another break point before wrapping up the match after 1 hour, 21 minutes.

“The last time I played her I lost, so anything’s a bonus,” Osaka said, adding that she felt a few butterflies before opening the first title defense of her career.

Her surprise triumph at Indian Wells last year launched a 2018 campaign that would eventually include her first Grand Slam crown at the US Open.

“I’ve never been a defending champion before, that’s new and I was really nervous,” said Osaka, who booked a third-round meeting with American Danielle Collins, who was a 6-4, 6-1 winner over Kirsten Flipkens.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams pulled off the upset of the day, rallying from a set and two breaks down to topple third-seeded Petra Kvitova 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

“I just fought and tried my hardest,” said Williams, currently ranked 36th in the world.

The world’s top-ranked man also won in straight sets, with Novak Djokovic beating Bjorn Fratangelo 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in pursuit of a record sixth title in the desert. It was Djokovic’s 50th match win at the tournament, his highest total at any ATP Masters 1000 event.

Djokovic indicated he was rusty at the start, having taken over a month off after winning the Australian Open in late January.

“I was kind of waiting for him to do something with the ball rather than doing it myself,” he said. “That resulted in a very close first set. He was the one that was really aggressive and dictating the points from back of the court for entire first set.”

Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Laslo Djere were seeded winners on the men’s side.

For the women, No. 5 Karolina Pliskova, No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 11 Anastasija Sevastova, No. 21 Anett Kontaveit and No. 24 Lesia Tsurenko were seeded winners.