Naomi Osaka return cut short after first-round Australian Open defeat

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka was making her first grand slam appearance for 15 months - DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka showed promising signs that she is heading back to her best level, despite her comeback being cut short at the Australian Open.

Osaka did not do much wrong in her first grand slam appearance in 15 months, but Caroline Garcia played a phenomenal match to beat the former world No 1 6-4 7-6(2) in Monday’s first round.

It was very much a case of too tough a draw too soon for Osaka, who will no doubt take positives from what was a high quality and competitive encounter.

Walking down the tunnel of champions towards Rod Laver Arena, Osaka purposefully touched the panel with her name on it. It was a reminder of her past exploits on this court, where she famously won two of her four major titles.

Osaka’s undeniable star power was on display as she stepped into the arena in an eye-catching metallic jacket, and the quality tennis she brought to the court matched those style points.

Naomi Osaka
Osaka, resplendent in her metallic jacket, says she is delusional enough to believe that she could have won the tournament despite more than a year away from tennis - Getty Images/Saeed Khan

Osaka’s return to tennis, just six months since giving birth to her daughter, has been one of the big talking points of this Australian Open and the Melbourne crowd warmly welcomed back her clean, brutal ground strokes.

Garcia’s emphatic celebration at the end of the match – running and jumping towards her team and the very vocal French supporters – was not typical of a first round win. The Frenchwoman knew what a big achievement it was to get past Osaka, who grew in confidence with every point they played.

A disappointed Osaka said managing her own expectations had been challenging.

“When I was in LA training, I was really worried that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with any of the girls,” Osaka shared post-match. “Coming here and playing three tough matches, I feel positive that I’m able to play, I’m at least able to challenge them. You know what I mean?

“I have to tell myself, ‘Hey, like six months ago you were pregnant,’ stuff like that. There’s a voice in my head that is [saying], Who are you to think you can come back and immediately start winning matches? I don’t know. I kind of always expect myself to stand a chance anyways. I guess just being nicer to myself is like a key thing that I learned in my time away.”

Despite having only one match to show for it at Melbourne Park, all the evidence suggests Osaka has every chance of climbing back to the top of the sport.

In terms of worldwide recognition and endorsement deals, no active female player comes close to Osaka, and no doubt she wants to regain the same notoriety on court.

Tennis has missed her presence, but her rivals did not miss the feeling of landing her in the draw. “I felt a bit unlucky to be honest,” Garcia said of learning who her first-round opponent was.

As the 16th seed, Garcia may have been the favourite on paper but there remained so many unknowns around just how well Osaka could play. They had one previous meeting, at the Australian Open three years ago, when Osaka obliterated the Frenchwoman 6-2 6-3 in the second round.

Caroline Garcia celebrates after winning a point
Caroline Garcia brought a phenomenal level to beat the former world No 1 in straight sets - Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

That was Osaka at the peak of her powers. She went on to win the tournament, her fourth major, and looked like she was on track to dominate the sport for years to come. Since then she has not gone past the third round of a grand slam, due in part to injuries and mental health breaks she has taken from the sport, before stepping away for the entirety of 2023 for maternity leave.

Osaka has spoken about how much happier and more motivated she feels entering this new phase of her career and Garcia, 30, had to be at her very best to get past her.

Once touted by Andy Murray as a future world No 1, Garcia has always had the talent to beat anyone. But she can sometimes be prone to under-performing and flakiness when trying to see out important matches.

There was no sign of that on Monday though, in an intense match defined by first-strike tennis, as only four points went beyond nine shots. The pair were serving with intent too, hitting 24 aces between them.

Garcia nabbed the only break of the match to help nudge her ahead in the first set, and kept her level just beyond Osaka’s reach throughout. The key aspect to her game turned out to be pinpoint precise serving, as she did not even give Osaka a break point opportunity. She also aggressively stepped into the court on the return, taking away Osaka’s time, and exposing some of the rustiness in the Japanese player’s movement on court.

In the tiebreak Garcia delivered a clinical serving performance to fend off Osaka’s threat.

Osaka is expected to play in Dubai next month, and said she will aim to play a fuller schedule this year than she has in previous seasons.

Due to how young her daughter Shai is, she chose not to travel with her to Australia but told reporters she had been keeping her motivated from afar: “I talk to and I think about Shai a lot. Before my match, I got sent a video of her. It was really cute. It made me happy and motivated, but at the same time a little frustrated because I felt like I should do better with the time I had away from her. Hopefully I get there one day.

“The competitor in me is really frustrated that I’m not winning these matches, of course. So I wouldn’t say this comeback is how I thought because I’m delusional enough to think I could have won the tournament. I think my delusion is what allows me to win the tournaments.”

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