Osaka, Azarenka facing different pressures at French Open

PARIS -- Most tennis players would never admit that a relatively recent No. 1 ranking was renting space in their heads. Just another day, just another match -- these are the safe responses the thought police would advise.

Naomi Osaka is not most players, so after sword-fighting her way out of a self-made first-round ambush at the French Open on Tuesday, she looked straight at a questioner and explained why she'd been swamped by anxiety.

"I mean, I can give you logical reasons, but I'm not really a logical person,'' Osaka said. "Logical reasons, first time playing a Grand Slam as No. 1. Won the last two, so I kind of want to win this one really bad. I have never played on Chatrier (center court) before. And, yeah, I kind of feel like I'm having the thought of wanting to prove myself again, so...''

The angst left hanging in the ellipsis is completely logical, even if expressing it out loud was unorthodox. Osaka sits atop the WTA rankings at a major for the first time as she takes on the surface that is the most slippery for her. She's keen to wear her new mantle well.

Osaka's second-round opponent Thursday, Victoria Azarenka, faces a different, almost entirely internal pressure: regaining her footing and identity as a contender at the majors.

Azarenka had rose-colored glasses perched on her nose as she regarded a small roomful of reporters after a first-round win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, an uneven but perilous opponent who demanded focus and quality. Whether it was deliberate symbolism or not, positive thinking has been a required accessory for Azarenka, still unseeded but moving up the charts.

Now ranked No. 43, Azarenka infiltrated the WTA top 50 last week for the first time since the birth of her son, Leo, in December 2016 and an ensuing custody battle that for a time restricted her ability to travel with him. Her competitive construction project has had its setbacks, none more difficult for the two-time Australian Open champion than a first-round loss to then-110th-ranked Laura Siegemund of Germany in Melbourne four months ago.

Yet for much of this season, reunited with her former coach Wim Fissette, Azarenka has risen to the occasion in difficult early draws against top players. Serena Williams prevailed in their scintillating Indian Wells second-rounder, but Azarenka has since beaten several top players, including Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina.

Thus, the prospect of meeting No. 1 Osaka this soon in a Slam is nothing novel for Azarenka. "Like, every single week?'' she said, laughing. "Just the usual second-round match.

"But, yeah, it's going to be exciting for me. I love to challenge myself against the best players. Last time we played, it was very one-way match, and so I hope to do better next time.''

That would be a year ago at the Italian Open, where the ascendant Osaka blew past Azarenka 6-0, 6-3, but that result seems ancient given everything that has transpired since.

"I mean, she's been playing really well recently, and there is no way that it's going to be a similar match to the one I played her in Rome last year,'' said Osaka, who noted she hadn't looked ahead in the draw. "So I'm expecting, like, one of the hardest matches of the year.''

Since March, Azarenka has meshed in a productive and exuberant doubles partnership with Australia's Ashleigh Barty. Their title earlier this month in Rome was their first together and Azarenka's second doubles championship this season.

Azarenka has been open about her work with a sports psychologist, her past fears that pregnancy and delivery would end her career, and her sense of urgency, at age 29, to make the most of the years while Leo is adaptable and not yet of school age.

It's a relearning and reacclimating process in direct contrast to what the 21-year-old Osaka is confronting -- the new puzzles posed by her stature and the jury of her own expectations embedded in every court. Her first-round recovery against Slovakia's Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who bageled her in the first set and twice had a chance to serve out the match in the second, was "one of those matches where you're not playing well but you have to find a way to win,'' Osaka said. "For me, I've just begun learning how to do that.''

Both women have dealt with minor injuries during the clay-court season. Leg pain forced Azarenka to retire in the Monterrey singles final. Osaka woke up in Rome with pain and swelling in her playing hand that prompted her to withdraw before the quarterfinals. She said her injury wasn't a factor in her faltering start at Roland Garros: "Probably looked like I felt something, but no, it was fine,'' she said with typical dry humor.

NBC analyst Mary Carillo said she has observed heft returning to Azarenka's groundstrokes and dialed-up volume on her serve -- both results of mounting confidence, in her opinion.

In Thursday's second-round match, it'll be that momentum versus a formidable but perhaps not yet totally irresistible force in Osaka, especially on clay, where the world No. 1 is least comfortable. Yet Carillo said she doesn't doubt the thought-precedes-action nature of the younger player's stated goal to sweep the Slams this season.

"She didn't say it dreamily,'' Carillo said. "I think she has great clarity about what she wants to do. She seems very aware of her personal power and she wants to live up to it.''