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Osaka reflects on being in spotlight after victory

MASON, Ohio — Down a set and a break to 17-year-old Coco Gauff, second-ranked Naomi Osaka fought back to pull out a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win at the Western & Southern Open on Wednesday, her first WTA Tour event since the French Open in late May.

Osaka appreciated being tested so quickly.

“It’s definitely been a while since I played a tough opponent in a three-set match,” she said. “It was definitely really tough, but I feel really good right now. I’m super excited to play another match.”

Osaka also said on Wednesday that she was reflecting since briefly leaving and then returning to Monday’s news conference before the tournament.

During that news conference, Osaka put her head down and was fighting back tears after a reporter asked how her training for the upcoming hard-court season was progressing and for her thoughts on the events in Haiti, where a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck last week. Osaka then stepped away for four minutes before returning.

Just prior to that question, she was asked by a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer about how she balances “not being crazy about dealing with us” with needing a media platform for her “outside interests.” Osaka took a few long pauses at that line of questioning, and the news conference moderator tried to move on to the next question. But Osaka insisted on trying to better understand the question and she answered it.

“Honestly, I was thinking about this since the last time I sat here,” Osaka said on Wednesday. “I was wondering why I was so affected, I guess. Like what made me not want to do media in the first place. And then I was thinking, I was wondering if I was scared because sometimes I would see headlines of players losing and then the headline the next day would be like ‘a collapse’ or ‘they’re not that great anymore.’

“So then I was thinking, me waking up every day, for me, I should feel like I’m winning, you know? Like, the choice to go out there and play, to go see fans, that people come out and watch me play, that itself is an accomplishment. I’m not sure when along the way I started desensitizing that. It started not being an accomplishment for me. So I felt like I was very ungrateful on that fact.”

Osaka, who won the Australian Open in February, withdrew from the French Open before her second-round match and skipped Wimbledon entirely as she cited a need for a mental health break. She was eliminated in the round of 16 at the Tokyo Olympics after lighting the Olympic cauldron in her native Japan.

“I don’t know. I think definitely this whole COVID thing was really stressful with the bubbles and not seeing people and not having the interactions,” Osaka said on Wednesday. “But I think, like, I guess seeing the state of the world, how everything is in Haiti, how everything is in Afghanistan right now, is definitely really crazy.

“And for me to just be hitting a tennis ball in the United States right now, and have people come and watch me play, is, I don’t know. I would want to be myself in this situation rather than anyone else in the world.”

In other matches, top-ranked Ash Barty needed a second-set tiebreaker to beat Heather Watson, 6-4, 7-6 (3) in a match postponed from Tuesday because of rain. Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber upset fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina.

Simona Halep, the 12th seed, withdrew with a right thigh injury.

Men’s top seed Daniil Medvedev cruised to a 6-2, 6-2 win in 59 minutes over wild card Mackenzie McDonald, and three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray was eliminated by ninth-seeded Hubert Hurkacz.

Both Olympic singles gold medalists, Alexander Zverev and Belinda Bencic, and men’s No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas all advanced in straight sets. Two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza and fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova also won in straight sets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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