Naomi Osaka made a winning return to tennis as she edged out fellow Grand Slam champion Sloane Stephens in a blockbuster of a first round match at Indian Wells.
The Japanese star secured a 3-6 6-1 6-2 success in one hour and 53 minutes to cap an impressive comeback despite showing obvious signs of rust in windy conditions in the desert.
Speaking on court following her first ever victory over Stephens at the third time of asking, she said: “It means a lot (to be back here). Sloane is such a champion and hopefully next time we play will be in more ideal conditions. But it was really great to be out here again. The energy was so cool.
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“I haven’t played in wind for a while. It felt very new to me. I felt like I was fighting for my life! I was playing against her and the wind. But I felt she was going through the same conditions so I just willed myself to fight as hard as I could.”
Ahead of a tournament she won back in 2018, Osaka had spoken about being at peace with herself as she looks to put a difficult 2021 season and a surprise third round exit at this year’s Australian Open behind her.
It didn’t start particularly well for the former world number one though as a double fault in the first point of the contest kicked off a service game that saw her immediately broken.
However, Stephens appeared equally nervy despite the early gift and a rollercoaster, error-strewn opening set ensued.
Osaka, currently ranked 78 in the world, reeled off three games in a row in rapid fashion to take charge, but the American fought back brilliantly to turn the tide in her favour.
The 2017 US champion from Florida took advantage of her opponent’s low first-serve percentage of 50 to repeatedly breach Osaka’s defences and bite back from 3-1 down to take the first set 6-3 in 47 minutes.

Sloane Stephens returns a shot to Naomi Osaka of Japan during the BNP Paribas Open

Image credit: Getty Images

The five-game streak was stunted by a real lull at the start of the second and it threatened to undermine the world number 38 as Osaka quickly raced into a 4-0 lead courtesy of a double break.
The American, who won the seventh WTA title of her career in Guadalajara last month after a four-year drought, had three chances to snare one break back at 4-1 but Osaka dug deep to clinch a lengthy hold before levelling the match for a breadstick with an emphatic drive volley.
The momentum appeared to be with the Japanese star at this juncture but an untimely double fault on a second break point gave Stephens, who has never gone beyond the last eight at the tournament, the boost she needed at the beginning of the decider.
The former world number three had chances for a double break at 2-0 as Osaka struggled with her serve, but she couldn’t convert and it opened the door for a stunning revival that was in-keeping with the topsy-turvy nature of the encounter.
Indeed, the missed opportunity proved crucial as Osaka immediately broke and really found her rhythm to storm back and win six games in a row to set up a meeting with number 21 seed Veronika Kudermetova in round two.

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