Naomi Osaka overcame strong desert winds to grab her first career win over Sloane Stephens, fighting past the American 3-6 6-1 6-2 in round one at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
It was Osaka’s first return to the desert competition since 2019 after her win there in 2018.
The 24-year-old had not played a tournament since January when she lost in round 32 at the Australian Open.
The former-world number one has dropped significantly in her Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranking after only playing a handful of events in 2021.
On Friday, Osaka was trailing 2-0 in the third set against Stephens before she fought off three break points to hold and begin a run of six straight games to close out the match in less than two hours.
She broke the American three times in the set, including at love in the sixth game.
Japan’s Osaka will now move into round 2 of the BNP Paribas.
“Sloane is such a champion,” Osaka said of her opponent.
“Hopefully, next time we play will be in more ideal conditions,” she added after the pair battled strong winds.
“I haven’t played in wind like that for a while, so this was very new to me.
“I felt like I was fighting for my life. I was playing against her; I was playing against the wind. It was crazy. I just kept thinking she was going through the same circumstances as me, so I just had to will myself to try as hard as I could.”
It was the first time Stephens had lost to Osaka, after three career meetings.
The 28-year-old, the 2017 US Open winner, has her ranking drop to 38 – despite last month’s tournament win at Guadalajara, Mexico.
In the men’s draw, Australian wildcard Nick Kyrgios beat Argentina’s Sebastian Baez 6-4 6-0.
In what was the Aussie’s third match of the year and first tournament since the Australian Open, Kyrgios sailed past his opponent and into second round in just over an hour.
Kyrgios struck 12 aces in the 72-minute clash against the world number 60, helping him record his first top-100 singles victory of the season.
Following his win, Kyrgios told the BNP Paribas Open website that for the fist time in a long time he was feeling mentally and physically fit.
“I’m just in a different mindset,” the wild card said. “I feel like I’m a bit younger mentally, I feel fresh again, and obviously I’m healthy again with my left knee – I feel like I’m playing some pretty good tennis.”
The Aussie will now play 32nd seed Argentine Federico Delbonis in the second round.
Earlier in the day, Britain’s players suffered their first defeats at Indian Wells, with both Heather Watson and Katie Boulter falling in the first round.
Tereza Martincova of Czech Republic defeated Watson 6-2 6-1. While Italian Jasmine Paolini defeated Boulter 6-3 6-2.
The day also saw emotional scenes between Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk and Maryna Zanevska – who was born in Ukraine but now represents Belgium.
Kostyuk was wearing the colours of her besieged homeland when she came from 3-5 down in the decider to beat Zanevska 6-7 (5) 7-6 (6) 7-5.
In a heartening display of comradeship and sportsmanship, as play ended the two rivals embraced each other weeping. The footage of the compelling moment showed clear affection between the pair.
Tennis’ governing bodies have announced a package of support measures for Ukraine this week but the sport has not banned Russian and Belarusian players provided they compete under a neutral flag.
Both main draws are headed by players in this position, with Russian Daniil Medvedev competing as world number one for the first time while Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is the highest seed in the women’s event following the withdrawals of Ashleigh Barty and Barbora Krejcikova.
Medvedev said of playing under a neutral flag: “I want to promote my sport, I want to promote what I’m doing in my country for sure, and right now the situation is that that is the only way I can play.”
Sabalenka expressed her dismay at the situation in Ukraine, saying: “I feel really sad and really bad about Ukrainian citizens who lost their homes in the war. I just hope for peace.”
Earlier in the competition, Britain’s Harriet Dart moved through to a second-round meeting against Ukrainian Elina Svitolina after Croatia’s Ana Konjuh retired trailing 6-1 3-1.
Liam Broady became the fourth British qualifier, beating Australian Christopher O’Connell 7-6 (7) 6-0.
While Emma Raducanu will take on France’s Caroline Garcia on Saturday provided she has sufficiently recovered from a leg injury.
In his first match, wild card Andy Murray will meet Japan’s Taro Daniel for the third time this year having lost at the Australian Open before claiming some revenge in Doha last month.