PARIS — Naomi Osaka, the No. 1 women’s seed at the French Open, was beaten in the third round Saturday by Katerina Siniakova, an unseeded Czech player better known for her doubles prowess.
Siniakova’s 6-4, 6-2, upset underscored the wide-open nature of women’s tennis. Of the 32 seeds, 22 have been eliminated or have withdrawn before the fourth round. Ten of the top 16 seeds are also out, although last year’s finalists — the champion Simona Halep and the runner-up Sloane Stephens — remain in contention.
Osaka, the 21-year-old Japanese star, is not yet a clay-court maven. She has not won a title on the surface and is still figuring out the footwork. She took a few moments between points Saturday to practice her sliding.
But her defeat on a hot, sun-drenched day on the Suzanne-Lenglen Court qualifies as a significant upset.
Osaka has won the last two Grand Slam singles titles, fighting off pressure and big-time opposition to win the 2018 United States Open and the 2019 Australian Open. But this was the first time she was the top seed in a Grand Slam tournament.
“Usually I find it very freeing and fun,” she said of playing in her sport’s most important events. “This time around I was kind of tense the entire time.”
She defeated Siniakova, 6-4, 6-0, in their only previous meeting, which came in the first round in Doha last year. But that was on a hardcourt, which remains Osaka’s happiest hunting ground.
This match was on red clay, and though there was no doubt who had the edge in firepower, Siniakova played a remarkable match by varying her tactics and spins and by extending rallies with her fine defense.
Above all, she defended her serve effectively, saving all seven break points she faced, all of which came in the first set. Serving for that set at 5-4, Siniakova came back from a 0-40 deficit to hold, saving the first break point with a deft backhand drop-shot winner. She broke Osaka’s forceful serve three times.
But Saturday’s result was hardly all about Siniakova’s cleverly executed game plan, fighting spirit and world-class backhand.
Osaka made errors by the bunch from the baseline: 38 unforced errors in all, compared with Siniakova’s 13. Osaka repeatedly struck the net cord with her huge groundstrokes and service returns. By the end, she was missing by much larger margins, as Siniakova reeled off the last five games to close out the match and put herself in the fourth round of a Grand Slam singles tournament for the first time.
Osaka showed flashes of fine form in her three clay-court events before the French Open, and she fought through her first two rounds here after very slow starts to defeat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, and the former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3. But a third comeback win was not to be.
“Today, I felt very tired,” Osaka said. “And like the other matches too, I had this headache, right, but I didn’t feel tired. So I’m thinking the headache is just my stress kind of.”
But Osaka also gave credit to Siniakova.
“She played great,” Osaka said. “I’m not going to keep saying that I was tired, because obviously she played a super-long match her last round, and she’s tired too probably.”
Siniakova, daughter of a Russian father and Czech mother, has an unorthodox serve: She keeps her right arm extended instead of bending it at the elbow in the middle of the motion.
“Not bad, strange,” Siniakova said. “I’m working on it, but the important thing is that it needs to go in, and it needs to work in the game.”
But she clearly fits right in at Roland Garros, where she won the doubles title here last year with her compatriot Barbora Krejcikova.
“For sure it brings out my best tennis,” said Siniakova, who followed that win with the doubles title at Wimbledon. “I hope it will continue.”
For Osaka, who will remain No. 1 in the rankings after this tournament, the next stop will be on grass. But she finds herself in a vulnerable position.
Her victory over Serena Williams in last year’s U.S. Open final made her a global star, increasing her sponsorship contracts and earnings exponentially and making her a particular focus of Japanese news coverage. She followed up by winning the Australian Open, showing a rare ability to summon her best tennis on the biggest points.
But she has been unable so far to extend that dominance since splitting with her coach Sascha Bajin unexpectedly after her victory in Melbourne. She retained her fitness coach Abdul Sillah, whose work was also fundamental in her rise to No. 1, and hired Jermaine Jenkins as her new coach. Jenkins previously worked as Venus Williams’s hitting partner and is a former collegiate player at Clemson.
But Osaka has yet to reach another tour final since the Australian Open and has yet to play another semifinal. She retired before her semifinal at the Stuttgart Open in April with an abdominal strain.
Osaka started convincingly against Siniakova, putting her under consistent pressure from the beginning and projecting calm confidence while Siniakova looked anxiously at her own team in the players box.
But as the match developed, Siniakova kept saving break points and Osaka kept making mistakes.
“I felt the chance,” Siniakova said. “Because her first and second round was tough, so I could see that she’s not so confident like she was.”
By the end, the better clay-court player won.