Reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka was back on Rod Laver Arena today in her first hitout since exiting the third-round at the US Open.
The Japanese superstar cut a happy, relaxed figure as she marked her return to Melbourne with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over experienced Frenchwoman Alize Cornet.
It was a match that had it all for the four-time Grand Slam winner. Osaka bullied with her powerful hitting from the baseline and showed her finesse with some fine drop shots to keep Cornet at bay.
The victory extends Osaka’s streak at Melbourne Park to eight wins in a row while she increases her tally on one of her favourites courts, Rod Laver Arena, to an impressive 13-1.
“It was really nice, I have a lot of really fond memories here,” Osaka said in her post-match press conference.
“It’s just nice to play the warm-up event here on Rod Laver and just be able to feel what it feels like to play a match there.
“Whenever I come back here at the start of the year it’s like a breath of fresh air…the vibes here are good.”
Osaka looked like a breath of fresh air herself as she bounced around Rod Laver during her two-hour ordeal with Cornet. She could even be seen pulling a wry smile on the odd occasion after a missed shot, of which there were plenty.
Osaka controlled the majority of the match from the baseline but Cornet’s elite scrambling kept her in it. What was particularly noticeable was Osaka’s ability to hit the ball powerfully, deeply and accurately, giving Cornet minimal chance to counterpunch at all.
In a potential sign of things to come, Osaka hit 35 winners for the match with 20 coming from her dominant forehand wing. On the other hand, she showed her rust by tallying 52 unforced errors for the match. Once Osaka rediscovers her timing she’ll be a handful for any opponent.
“I haven’t played that many matches so hopefully I get more into the groove of things,” Osaka said.
“I was really happy with how it went. I thought that I stayed pretty calm throughout but hopefully in my next rounds I can be a little bit more energetic.”
Osaka endured an indifferent 2021 season that saw her claim a fourth Grand Slam crown at the Australian Open before dealing with a range of personal issues that saw her withdraw from Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
The time Osaka took off seems, at least at face value, to have completely refreshed her mind and approach to both the game and those who cover it.
“I feel like for me, I only really have one major goal this year, and it's completely unrelated to results and stuff like that,” Osaka said.
“For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court…I'm having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.
“Also, I have a goal in the pressroom, that I'm never going to cry again, so hopefully, that works out in my favour.”
Osaka continued to explain that she fell out of love with the game in 2021, a game she has been playing since she was just three years old.
“I just feel like, for me, I'm the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that,” Osaka continued.
“I just need to find a way to enjoy the game again because that's the reason why I was playing in the first place.
“It was just like an extreme buildup, and you just happened to see it all release last year.”
The tennis world is a much better place with Osaka in it and hopefully, she remains in a good space to compete.
As for now, her form is building as she prepares for an assault on a potential third Australian Open title. Oh, and a quick word of warning for her competitors - she loves playing in the Melbourne sun.
“I just love playing in the heat in Australia,” Osaka said.
“I'm not sure why, but I just love feeling like I'm suffering, because I know that the other person is also suffering.”
Osaka faces Belarusian Maryna Zanevska in the second round of the Melbourne Summer Set 1 on Thursday.