By Ros Satar
- Naomi Osaka def. Heather Watson 6-2 6-3
- Johanna Konta def. Kurumi Nara 6-4 6-2
- Wins in the reverse singles could lead to a crucial deciding rubber
MIKI, JAPAN – GB’s hopes of reaching the World Group remain alive after Johanna Konta levelled the tie, following Naomi Osaka’s convincing win over Heather Watson.
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Naomi Osaka def. Heather Watson 6-2 6-3
Japanese No. 1 Naomi Osaka was ruthlessly efficient as she powered past Britain’s Heather Watson in the opening rubber of the Fed Cup World Group II Play-off. She put Watson under pressure early bringing up a break point chance, before making sure of that with a break in Watson’s second service game.
Watson did have her chances early, bringing up a solitary break point opportunity in the first set, before being broken for Japan to take the lead. Osaka’s game play looks to have matured, and the pair did engage in a few rallies before Osaka would deliver the killer punch – it was all Watson could do to stay in contention.
The second set saw Watson up the aggression, with two chances to break in her opening game before again losing her serve. She made Osaka work for the match as the Japanese player finally put the hosts in the lead on her third match point.
Johanna Konta def. Kurumi Nara 6-4 6-2
It was down to British No. 1 Johanna Konta to put Great Britain back on an even keel. The slick speed of the court looked to be playing to the Brit’s advantage right away with an immediate break, although Kurumi Nara pushed Konta hard on her first service game, but could not convert on her three break point chances.
The did not give each other an inch on the remaining games before Konta finally sealed the first set on her fourth set point. The second set started very well for Konta who broke Nara twice to jump out to a 3-0 lead, but the home favourite was not done yet, getting one of the breaks back, before losing her serve towards the end of the set, with Konta levelling the tie.
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Johanna Konta v Naomi Osaka | H2H: Konta leads 3-0
Konta has a great opportunity to put GB in a commanding position as she looks to extend her head to head lead over Osaka. However, a lot has happened since they last met – for both players. Konta’s form has undeniably dipped and where she used to out-puzzle and guts out a match win from behind, her confidence seemed to have taken a hit with some losses from a commanding position that will have hurt.
Her win over Kurumi Nara will have gone some way though to rebuild that – although the score line might make it look a lot more one-sided, Nara’s pace and creativity made Konta work hard for a tie-levelling win.
Osaka’s game has improved, physically and tactically, but you would still have to give the edge to Konta in terms of the variety she can bring. She may lack a little in the more finesse volley side of delicate pickups and placement, but if she gets on the right end of a drive volley it is Konta at her aggressive best.
She will be able to match Osaka punch for punch off the ground, and while we saw a lot of decent rallies from the Japanese in the opening match, Konta may want to play a more patient game from time to time and mix things up from offence to defence to shake the home favourite off her stride.
Even allowing for their traversing trajectory in the rankings this is winnable for Konta, but we see she will have to work to get it.
Prediction: Konta in three sets.
Heather Watson v Kurumi Nara | First meeting
This fourth rubber will be the crucial one, and will test the resolve of two players who have not had the best of runs this year. Watson started the year well with a lot of qualifying match play and reaching the Hobart semi-finals, but outside of her three Fed Cup wins in February in the Group stages, she has struggled to get a W to her name on the tour.
Nara might has yet to pick up a tour level main draw win this year, and has dropped back to the lower tiers to get some match wins under her belt, but she did come up with ways to make Konta earn her win on Saturday.
Both players are nimble and quick about the court with good court smarts so this is a perfect reverse singles rubber to capture the imagination for the travelling fans – let’s face it, it is a long way to go for a weekend of tennis.
Nara will have a very enthusiastic home crowd behind her, but Watson has proved time and again she can lift her game when it comes to playing for her country. This will be one of those times.
There is little to separate them and ranking, given their tour form at the moment, has little place here – if anything Watson possesses just a little more firepower and pep to her serve that could garner her some free points, and has made moves to be a lot more aggressive to play the more powerful players – this could be key.
We are going to err on the side of the visitors, but we envisage a roller-coaster.
Prediction: Watson in three sets.
If it comes down to a crucial fifth rubber, then most likely Anne Keothavong will play Konta and Watson. The pair have played in the Group stage play-off match to earn their spot in this play-off and they paired up in Miami most recently.
While Keothavong has a doubles specialist in Anna Smith, she might look to play her and sub in Watson for debutante Gabriella Taylor as a back-up option.
Play starts at 12pm (4am BST) – Watch live on BT Sport or via BBC Five Live/Online or follow the scores live on the Britwatch Tennis Livescore Page
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