Playing her first match since winning the Australian Open and her first as the world No. 1, Naomi Osaka was beaten 6-3 6-3 by an inspired Kristina Mladenovic at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday.
“I thought I played pretty bad,” said Osaka, while also admitting that she is not accustomed to being in the spotlight and is having trouble in dealing with that.. “I mean, there are days that you have like that, and you just have to find a way to, like, win no matter what the situation is. I haven’t been practicing well recently. I just thought, like, it would go away during the matches. I was kind of counting on that. That didn’t happen.”
Their only previous meeting was in the first round in Dubai a year ago, and Osaka won easily on her way to the quarter-finals.
“She just overpowered me (then). I think I was not ready. My main focus today was really to return well,” said Mladenovic. “For sure it means a lot. At the moment, there’s a reason why she’s the best player in the world. I’m really proud how I stay composed. At the end it’s not easy to close it out. It’s not easy to play with that pressure.”
Defending champion Elina Svitolina was given a helping hand as she began her bid to make tournament history when Tunisian star Ons Jabeur was forced to retire. Sixth seeded Svitolina had struggled to gain the upper hand against a determined opponent, but towards the end of the opening set Jabeur received lengthy treatment for a right shoulder injury. The match then no longer became a contest and Svitolina progressed 7-6 4-0.
She then acknowledged that she has extra incentive to succeed this week as she attempts to become the first WTA player to win the tournament for three consecutive years.
“Well, this is a big motivation for me here,” she said. “Today I didn’t really feel like in a match mood. I don’t know why. Was a bit struggling. (But) when I was 0-2 down, I told myself, ‘C’mon, you are here to make history of the tournament’.”
“We congratulate Elina Svitolina on her victory and look forward to seeing if she can win the title here for a third time,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “Although Naomi Osaka was unable to progress we congratulate her for this week receiving the Laureus Award for breakthrough of the year; something that is so richly deserved after her remarkable 2018 season.”
Second seed Petra Kvitova needed two hours 34 minutes to overcome the challenge of fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova, eventually pulling through 6-7 6-4 6-4, and third seed Simona Halep, fourth seed Karolina Pliskova and fifth seed Angelique Kerber all successfully emerged from difficult matches.
Halep overcame a spirited challenge from Eugenie Bouchard to win 7-6 6-4 and claim her 200th main draw victory, Pliskova came through a rain-affected match with a 6-2 3-6 6-3 victory over Dominika Cibulkova and Kerber recovered from 1-5 in the first set to beat Dalila Jakupovic 7-6 6-3. Garbine Muguruza defeated Saisai Zheng 7-5 6-2, but 2018 runner-up Daria Kasatkina was defeated 6-3 2-6 6-4 by Sofia Kenin, and seventh seed Kiki Bertens fell 6-2 4-6 7-6 to Viktoria Kuzmova after holding a match point in the tiebreak. Fourteenth seed Caroline Garcia was also a casualty, falling 6-4 7-5 to qualifier Jennifer Brady.
The WTA event continues until 23rd February and features many of the world’s top players, including world No. 2 and reigning French Open champion Simona Halep, world No. 3, 2019 Sydney champion and Australian Open runner-up Petra Kvitova, two-time Dubai champion Elina Svitolina, 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber and 2019 Brisbane winner and Australian Open semi-finalist Karolina Pliskova all competing for the title.
The sensational week of women’s tennis will be followed by an equally thrilling men’s event headed by seven-time champion Roger Federer, Australian Open semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, defending champion and recent Doha winner Roberto Bautista Agut, former US Open winner Marin Cilic, Japanese No. 1 Kei Nishikori and two-time finalist Tomas Berdych.
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free, and held under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.