Reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka described her relief at navigating a tricky first round match Tuesday as she was struck by a bout of nerves in a three-set win over Russia's Anna Blinkova.
Osaka suffered a first-round exit last month at Wimbledon and the Japanese star found a spirited Blinkova hard to put away in Arthur Ashe Stadium before she advanced 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 in two hours and 28 minutes.
"I felt nervous. For me it's definitely a new feeling. Never had to come into a tournament as -- well, come into a Grand Slam (as champion)," Osaka said.
"I mean, I went to Indian Wells once. So I did feel like that gave me a little bit of practice, but the amount of nerves that I felt today was completely different than in California. I'm kind of really glad that's over."
The top seed added: "It was kind of consistent throughout the entire match, which was very strange for me, because normally it would be, like, the first couple of games or the first set. But, yeah, it (the nervousness) never really went away."
Osaka must retain her Flushing Meadows crown to have a chance of remaining world number one and was tested extensively by 2015 Wimbledon junior finalist Blinkova, who saved a match point as Osaka served for victory in the second set to force a decider.
World number 84 Blinkova raced 4-1 ahead in the first set but Osaka, sporting a black brace on the left knee that prompted her to retire in Cincinnati 10 days ago, steadied herself and reeled off five straight games.
Blinkova blew three set points as Osaka served at 4-5 in the second but capitalized at the fifth attempt, edging the tie-break as Osaka cracked with the finish in sight.
The Japanese crucially snuffed out a pair of break chances early in the third before knifing through the Blinkova serve the following game with a thumping inside-out forehand to grasp command at 3-1 and avoid a repeat of her Wimbledon misery.
- 'Razzle dazzle' -
"I feel like there was a term for it last year, because I remember last year I did it a lot, I would call it razzle dazzle. So, like, after the match I would be, 'Did you like that razzle dazzle?'" Osaka said of her powers of recovery.
"I knew it was going to be a really tough battle. The only thing I would have wished is that I won the first match point.
"I would prefer not to play three-set matches. I feel like, you know, playing two-set matches, it's more decisive and clean. It feels more firm. Like, you put a statement out that you're playing well."
Osaka will play Poland's Magda Linette for a spot in round three but denies feeling there is a target on her back as the defending champion in New York.
"I don't feel a bull's-eye," she said. "I feel like at this point everyone that I play is going to play really well, and I just need to learn how to cope with that and expect that going into the matches.
"I feel like I have been doing a better job of that recently. I think I need to factor in the fact that this is a Grand Slam, too, and that's also going to raise everyone's level, so I shouldn't be taken by surprise as much as I was today."