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Zhang Upsets Osaka in Cincinnati Opener

Naomi Osaka of Japan plays a forehand during her match against Shuai Zhang of China during the Western & Southern Open at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 16, 2022 in Mason, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Tugging on her blue visor, Naomi Osaka smacked her palm off her thigh as if trying to shake life into her legs.

Osaka beat herself up after a few errors, but Zhang Shuai was too busy cracking shots in the corners to notice.

The 44th-ranked Zhang broke in Osaka’s first and last service games surging to a 6-4, 7-5 victory over the former world No. 1 in Cincinnati today.

Zhang beat Osaka for the third time in six meetings improving her 2022 record to 23-19.

Reigning Cincinnati doubles champion Zhang will play Ekaterina Alexandrova, who defeated US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez by the same 6-4, 7-5 score, in round two.

It’s the second straight opening-round exit for Osaka, who trailed Kaia Kanepi 6-7(4), 0-3 in Toronto last week when she retired from that match. Since her run to the Miami Open final in April, Osaka has played five tournaments and failed to win back-to-back matches.

In today’s clash, Zhang outplayed Osaka from start to finish and played cleaner combination throughout. Osaka made a late push breaking back to level at 5-all after Zhang serve for it, but the 30-year-old Chinese broke right back and served out an emphatic win firing her fourth ace.

How do you prevent the powerful Osaka from pulverizing your second serve?

Don’t give her second serves.

Zhang missed just nine first serves in the match, including connecting on 30 of 32 first serves in the first set. Zhang broke to open then withstood Osaka pressure in the fourth game.

Taking a predatory posture on return, Osaka was so close to the service line she could have almost touched it with her Yonex racquet. That aggressive return position that recalled a young Marion Bartoli did not faze Zhang who held firm in the fourth game.

Staring down another break point in the sixth game, Zheng pasted the baseline with a backhand down the line to save it. That strike helped her hold for 4-2.

Thirty-three minutes into the match, Zhang served out the opening set with complete confidence. Landing every first serve, Zhang zapped a crosscourt forehand winner off the sideline to wrap up a one-set lead.

  Zhang served an eye-popping 94 percent in the opening set and hit four more winners—11 to 7—than the powerful Osaka and converted her lone break point.

Patiently probing the corners of the court, Zhang was waiting for Osaka to miss trying to change direction. The former No. 1 complied, sailing a forehand down the line to gift the break at 15 in the third game.

  An unerring Zhang continued to elicit errors from Osaka, who was sometimes hitting big without a pointed purpose. Zhang cruised through 12 of 13 points extending her second-set lead to 3-1.

Deadlocked at 30-all, Zhang had a clear look at a midcourt forehand but steered it up the line wide. Osaka took the gift and jammed an ace, holding in the fifth game.

The two-time US Open champion showed some fire in the ninth game. Osaka cranked an ace and smacked a crackling crosscourt forehand  holding with a “come on!” for 4-5.

  Facing double break point as she served for the match, Zhang stared down stress and slid successive forehand winners to save both. An Osaka return clipped the net and dribbled over for a third break point. Hitting with ambition, Osaka banged out the error earning her first break to draw even after 10 games.

After that good work, Osaka sabotaged herself. Zhang wisely played a return deep down the middle denying the power player opportunity for angle.  A jammed Osaka crashed a backhand into net as Zhang broke right back for 6-5.

Zhang zapped an ace out wide and showed little emotional reaction, capping an electric win in 75 minutes.