NEW YORK – Defending champion Naomi Osaka’s hopes for a third Grand Slam singles title were dashed Monday after she was knocked out of the U.S. Open by Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.
Top seed and world No. 1 Osaka suffered a 7-5, 6-4 loss at the hands of the 13th-seeded Bencic in their round of 16 clash at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But the 21-year-old held her head high at the post-match news conference, saying she is neither disappointed nor angry because she played well through the summer and the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of the year, has been her best tournament so far.
“Right now, I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I’ve learned so much during this tournament,” Osaka said.
“In Wimbledon, I walked out on you guys (the media). In Roland Garros, I came straight from the match so I was all gross and I just wanted to get out of there. As you can see, I took a shower (today). I feel like I’m more chill now. I feel like I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match.”
Osaka got off to a shaky start, dropping serve in the opening game with a double fault on Bencic’s first break chance.
But after successfully defending four break points in the third game, Osaka got on the board and went on to level the set at 2-2. She appeared to have steadied herself, unleashing six aces in the set and nine in the match as compared to none by her opponent.
It was a brilliant sequence by Bencic late in the set that eventually gave her the advantage. After earning a break point at 30-40, Bencic played a short return that drew Osaka to the net, then blasted a backhand winner past her for the game.
She held serve despite two double faults in the following game to win the hard-fought set.
Osaka did not see a single break opportunity in the second set, and her mistakes in the fifth game were costly. Already down 0-30 in that service game, Osaka failed to put away an easy point at the net — her backhand volley was fired right back by Bencic for a winner to set up a triple break chance.
Osaka then committed her second game-ending double-fault of the match, handing her opponent the decisive break. Five games later, Bencic finished off the defending champion with a love hold to take the match in 1 hour, 26 minutes.
The 22-year-old Swiss will face Donna Vekic of Croatia in a quarterfinal round featuring No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 8 seed Serena Williams, but missing No. 2 Ashleigh Barty and No. 3 Karolina Pliskova after they too were eliminated at the round of 16.
Back in 2014, when she was 17, Bencic became the youngest woman into the U.S. Open quarterfinals since 1997, when another Swiss woman, Martina Hingis, took the title.
Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, used to coach Bencic, and five-time major champion Hingis herself has served as a mentor. Bencic said she likes to emulate the way Hingis used to play, always thinking a move or two — or more — ahead.
“With Melanie, we didn’t try to copy Martina’s game. We tried to make my own game. And obviously, I know there are similarities, because that’s the way Melanie teaches, but it was about making my own strengths and my own game style,” Bencic said. “I play, of course, a little bit different than Martina. I think she was even more skilled and smarter on the court and playing more chess. I think I have a little bit less maybe talent and touch than her, but maybe a little bit more power.”
With the loss, Osaka will lose the world No. 1 spot in next week’s official WTA rankings, ceding the top spot to Australia’s Barty who was No. 1 for a period of eight weeks earlier this summer.
Before Monday, Osaka had lost two matches against the 12th-ranked Bencic this season, once at Indian Wells in her first title defense and most recently in the Madrid Open quarterfinals.
Last month, Osaka was forced to retire from her quarterfinal at the Western & Southern Open near Cincinnati because of a left knee injury.
“I hurt my knee in Cincinnati but it’s getting better. I don’t want to say that’s the reason I lost because, obviously, I played three matches before this. I just needed to take a painkiller,” Osaka said.
“The knee was a little bit annoying in the movement aspect, but that’s something that I should have overcome.”
Osaka has not reached the final of a tournament since winning her second straight Grand Slam at the Australian Open, but entered Monday’s match having dropped only one set in the tournament.
Osaka will next play at the Sept. 16-22 Toray Pan Pacific Open in Osaka. “To be honest I’m not even thinking about playing tennis there right now. All I’m thinking about is the takoyaki. I’m just there for the food,” she joked.
In men’s action, Rafael Nadal is looking healthy and hungry at Flushing Meadows so far, and he quickly broke things open against Cilic by seizing nine consecutive games for a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory in the fourth round.
Asked to explain that shot on the next-to-last point, Nadal chuckled a bit and said: “It’s easy to describe and difficult to make.”
“I hit it well,” Nadal said, “but to hit that spot, of course you need some luck.”
The 33-year-old Spaniard reached his ninth quarterfinal in New York and 40th at all major tournaments.
The No. 2-seeded Nadal, who retired from his 2018 semifinal at the U.S. Open with a knee injury, will try to get back to the final four by beating No. 20 Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals. Schwartzman advanced earlier Monday by eliminating No. 6 Alexander Zverev 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
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