When it comes to playing in the wind, two things traditionally help: (1) Being able to hit hard enough to keep the breeze from blowing your shots around; and (2) taking the little steps needed to adjust to any last-second gusts that send the ball veering out of your strike zone.

In a match between Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, Osaka definitely has the advantage when it comes to No. 1, and probably does when it comes to No. 2 as well. So in that sense, it wasn’t a surprise that the 2018 Indian Wells champ emerged a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 winner, in what may have been the draftiest match of 2022 so far.

“I felt like I was fighting for my life,” Osaka said. “I was playing her, I was playing the wind, it was crazy.”

This was a highly-anticipated first-round encounter between two US Open champions, but at first it looked as if the wind was going to reign supreme, and keep them from playing anything like their best. In the first game, Osaka double faulted on break point; in the second game, Stephens returned the favor. There were lots more shanks, misjudged balls, and service breaks—13 of them—where those came from. Gradually, though, both women acclimated themselves and found some semblance of their normal levels. Osaka stood in on her return and attacked relentlessly, while Stephens scrambled across the baseline to try to block back whatever she could.

Back and forth, and back and forth, they went, as they lost and found their games in the wind. Osaka went up 3-1 in the first set before Stephens won the next five games. Stephens led 2-0 in the third set, and had two break points to make it 3-0. Here was where the match was won and lost. On the first break point, Stephens missed a makable backhand pass; on the second, Osaka hit a 114-m.p.h. service winner. Those two points sparked Osaka and deflated Stephens, and Osaka quickly sprinted past the American down the stretch.

“I haven’t played much in the wind of late,” Osaka said. “I was just tying to tell myself she was going through the same circumstances.”

Osaka also said that it was “great to be here again.” Having her feel that way can be half the battle. She’ll try to keep the good vibes going against Veronika Kudermetova next.

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