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A teen bopper hits the big time

Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Tennis

NEW YORK -- Don't be fooled by the whispery, little-girl voice that makes Naomi Osaka sound much younger than 19. This young woman is ready to roar, and she made an emphatic statement about her potential when she knocked defending champion Angelique Kerber out of the U.S. Open with a stunning 6-3, 6-1 first-round victory Tuesday under the closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Emerging from the locker room and seeing the sizable crowd left her "a little bit freaked out," she said later, but she hid her emotions well. Nor did she falter when she sprinted away from a frustrated Kerber in the second set and her thoughts jumped back to last year, when Osaka held a 5-1 lead over Madison Keys in the third set of a third-round match on the same court but couldn't close it out.

"I felt the same type of nerves come up at 4-1 in this match," she said, "so I wanted to tell myself just to keep playing how I was playing and not let the nerves get over me as much as last year."

She left the court in a torrent of tears last year. On Tuesday she left with her first win over a top-10 player and a growing sense of her enormous capabilities.

"Moving forward, I feel like I know that I can play with the top players now, so I don't have to be as nervous as I was today," said Osaka, who is ranked 45th in the world.

She played like a top player Tuesday in dispatching Kerber, who became the first women's defending champion to exit the U.S. Open in the first round since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005.

Osaka was fearless, unleashing ferocious forehands and well-placed backhand winners. Her top serve hit 113 mph and she averaged 102, helping her to take control of the match after she broke Kerber's serve for a 5-3 lead in the first set and for 4-1 in second. Osaka won when Kerber netted a return, capping a performance that blended all of the elements shown in spurts since she made her presence known by beating Samantha Stosur as a 16-year-old in 2014.

That victory, Osaka said, gave her "a little bit of a thought of, hey, maybe I can play against these players, right?" She can now, especially since she has recovered from an abdominal muscle injury that forced her to reluctantly retire from an evenly contested round-of-16 match against No. 1 Karolina Pliskova at Toronto a few weeks ago. Pulling out of that match "really hurt my feelings," she said, but it was a mature and sensible decision that made it possible for her to be in top shape against Kerber on Tuesday.

"She's a very aggressive player, but I know this before," said a downcast Kerber, whose early loss guaranteed she will drop out of the top 10 in the point-based rankings. "She served very well and was going for it. Yeah, she played a very good match from the beginning."

Osaka's success brings an infusion of youth and freshness at a time the sport needs it, with Serena Williams off the court awaiting the birth of her first child and no one else able to achieve sustained success and seize the No. 1 ranking with much authority.

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