Naomi Osaka: Heartbreaking end to French Open thriller as world No.1 survive...

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Published Time: 30.05.2024 - 16:03:06 Modified Time: 30.05.2024 - 16:03:06

“Sometimes under a lot of pressure when you scream something … it is really hard to be focused,” she said. Naomi Osaka, Iga Swiatek

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Having seen off Osaka in a significant show of resistance, Swiatek aimed a barb at the unruly French crowd when pleading with them to show respect to players during points.

The 22-year-old conceded she might lose the support of the French fans with her request but was clearly perturbed by the behaviour as fans repeatedly yelled when players were attempting to serve.

Swiatek’s cry for help followed a plea from French tennis authorities earlier in the day asking fans to respect players after Belgian veteran David Goffin complained of being spat at during a match when likening the behaviour of some crowd members to soccer hooliganism.

“Sometimes under a lot of pressure when you scream something … it is really hard to be focused,” she said.

“This is serious for us. We are fighting our whole lives to be better and better. Please guys, if you can support us between the rallies, but not during, that will be amazing.

“I hope you are still going to like me, because I know French crowd might (go after) some players they don’t like.”

For her part, Osaka described it as a “really fun match” and said she had no qualms with the crowd, having dealt in the past with ugly behaviour directed towards her during her defeat of Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

“I thought the crowd was really cool. It just made me feel like the crowd was having fun. For me, I didn’t have a problem with the crowd at all, but I am also used to the New York crowd,” she said.

Given the championship credentials of the woman she was facing - Swiatek was seeking to join Justine Henin and Helen Wills as players to win four French Opens in five years - it is indisputably the best clay court performance of Osaka’s career, even in defeat.

Returning to tennis in Australia in January after becoming a mother, she was beaten by Caroline Garcia in the first round in Melbourne. There have been signs in recent months that her best form was within reach. She reached the third rounds at Indian Wells and in Miami and the last 16 at the Italian Open in an encouraging display. But it was a return to the biggest stage that brought out her best.

Her ability to overpower a rival used to dictating terms to rivals on clay was eye-catching through the second and third sets, so too the sheer brilliance of the winners she thumped from both wings.

The Polish champion broke Osaka early in the first set, but the lowly-ranked rival signalled she was up for the fight by levelling the match with some stunning play.

When Swiatek had the better of the opening tiebreaker, it suggested that her clay court expertise might prove the difference in the clash between the current and past world No.1s.

But Osaka, who was the world’s highest-earning female athlete by a significant margin at her peak, had other ideas and rallied strongly in the second set to level before continuing the onslaught in the third set.

The aggression rattled Swiatek, who was regularly robbed of time by her rival’s pace of shot and also her intimidating positioning on the court as the match progressed.

The came the wobble. Leading 5-2, Osaka pressed Swiatek strongly on the two-time defending champion’s serve without breaking.

She then held a match point on her own serve at 5-3, but a mistake from the backhand wing amid a series of errors gave her rival a reprieve that she grasped with magnificent groundstrokes of her own.

To the great credit of Swiatek, she illustrated her championship qualities with a fightback reminiscent of her deeds in Melbourne earlier this year when she overcame a double-service break deficit of 4-1 in the third set against former Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins.

“I felt for most of the match … my mind was flying around sometimes, but when I was really under the biggest pressure, I was able to focus more and play better,” she said.

“I just kept going forward and I hope that my game is going to get better because of that. This match was really intense. Much more intense for the second round than I ever expected.”

Osaka, who was comfortably the highest-earning female athlete in the world at her peak, is yet to progress beyond the third round at Roland Garros or Wimbledon, though Swiatek said she played so well she could yet prove a “clay court specialist”.

Osaka said that while she shed tears afterwards, it was not the worst she had felt after a loss. She said she is also looking forward to tackling the world No. 1 on her own favourite surface.

“I’ve felt worse before, for sure. I’ve cried after the match,” she said.

“But I saw Iga Swiatek