First Meeting: Osaka and Safarova at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham

After a slam, there is a serious refractory period much like a turkey slumber on Thanksgiving or the morning after a bachelorette party. Post French Open I am sluggish and a bit pensive about committing to a tournament even if it is the grass season.

Last week I gave Mercedes Cup (Stuttgart), Ricoh Open (S-Hertogenbosch) and Aegon Open (Nottingham) a quick peak knowing that I would not commit to watching any matches. This week I am ready for the grass in Birmingham, Mallorca, London and Halle. For the women the most attractive draw is at Birmingham though there are a couple of interesting matches I’d like to see from the Mallorca draw as well as London and Halle for the ATP, namely Young and Kyrgios. The match I looked forward to the most was Japan’s Naomi Osaka and Czech Republic’s  Lucie Safarova. The two have never played and though Safarova’s power, touch and experience is a difficult match for the young and inexperienced Osaka, I know that their match has the potential to be noteworthy.

Safarova comes into this match with a tough win over Cibulkova in the first round 5-7, 7-6(7), 7-5. The lefty has come into her own in the last few years as a singles player reaching the French Open Final in 2015, but it is in doubles where she has excelled. Ranked the #2 doubles player, she won the Australian and French Open with Bethanie Mattek-Sands this year. However, she has drawn the short stick with injuries for the last two years: abdominal injury,  bacterial infection and reactive arthritis. Often noted for her kindness on tour, she shies away from the spotlight. She doesn’t have an aggressive or risk-taking game or personality. Sharing the doubles court with Mattek-Sands has helped her step into her greatness; interestingly, she is playing doubles with Barbora Strýcová. She is primed for another round of big wins with her health, confidence and game on an upswing though last week she lost in the semifinals to #58 Donna Vekic in Nottingham; she also lost in the first round in Madrid, Rome and Paris this year. She seems determined this week and this should put fear in Osaka.

At 5’11” and just nineteen Naomi Osaka is both bigger and younger than the thirty year old, 5’9” Safarova. As one of the most formidable WTA rising stars, this match is important for Osaka. She narrowly defeated American Lauren Davis in the first round, 6-1, 2-6, 7-6(4). Like the odds makers, I doubt a win is likely. This match will reveal her growth and ability to respond to a top player. Ranked forty-one, Safarova’s game is top ten, so Osaka has to come to the court prepared for a tough match.

osaka safarova outfits

Like their opposing athletic gear, Osaka in Adidas and Safarova in Nike, the players take the court with very different dispositions. Osaka’s affect is flat and rather disarming, while Safarova was more like the released bull, zoned-in on the red or magenta cape. Safarova roared to 4-0 quickly. Her power, leftiness and gameplan had Osaka producing error after error. Osaka was aced, sent balls long and simply could not make a dent in the Safarova game. Though she had more errors on her two-handed backhand, she simply seemed to be operating from a major deficit. Even her serves came back with dividends. Safarova handled the pace and position of Osaka’s serve well often blocking it back with winners.

During the fifth game her anger seemed to have awoken something in her. She used her power and was able to win the game keeping Safarova at love. However Safarova was undaunted by the game, responding with her own love game. At 5-1 Osaka could have folded to concentrate on set 2, instead she delivered a beautifully focused game. She added more spin to her serves, got low for returns and ended rallies with blistering forehands to bring the match to 5-2 forcing Safarova to serve out the set. Though Safarova’s serve does not have the pace of Osaka’s, her effectiveness, especially out wide is better. Osaka was also unable to match Safarova’s strokes in long rallies. Five shot rallies were the norm. There were only a couple nine ball rallies. Both players court speed and movement is not lacking. They hit on the run and had no problem running down balls. However, Osaka’s game, whether due to nerves, pace or technique, was error strewn.

In the second set, Osaka got off to a much better start. She held serve routinely if not easily until 4-4. In the ninth game she shows what she is made of. Down 40-0, she secures two points before making a costly error when she nets the ball giving Safarova the break. Confident, healthy and unafraid Safarova varies her serve nicely in the last game. At 5-4, she serves out wide, body, T, body and T to win the match 6-2, 6-4.

osaka safarova match stats

Previously coached by her father, Osaka is now working with David Taylor who has worked with several top 20 WTA players, including former World Number 1’s Martina Hingis and Ana Ivanovic, US Open Champion Sam Stosur, Olympic bronze medallist Alicia Molik and Ajla Tomljanovic. Too early to determine the success of the pairing, their on-court coaching revealed a teaching relationship which does not appear to be unhealthy. If Osaka is to realize her potential she may need to release her emotions on court. She appears to stifle it which may take energy she should be focusing on her play. Though she did not have a great serving day, she showed that her game is developing and she will be a dangerous opponent. Safarova next faces Australia’s Gavrilova who she has a favorable head-to-head 3-2. It is unclear if Frantisek Cermak is still her coach. However, to reach the final she will have to content with Petra Kvitova on grass…

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