Naomi Osaka's

Naomi Osaka’s early Australian Open tennis  

A tunnel leading into Rod Laver Arena is adorned with the names and likenesses of former Australian Open winners. On Monday night, Naomi Osaka made her first trip through that tunnel in two years, and as she did so, she stretched out and stroked her own name—a good-luck custom from her heyday in Australia. After…

A tunnel leading into Rod Laver Arena is adorned with the names and likenesses of former Australian Open winners. On Monday night, Naomi Osaka made her first trip through that tunnel in two years, and as she did so, she stretched out and stroked her own name—a good-luck custom from her heyday in Australia. After a 15-month break from the game, the two-time tournament winner could have wished to remind herself of her strengths and her true personality.

Naomi Osaka's early Australian Open tennis  
Naomi Osaka’s early Australian Open tennis  

As it happened, the throng of people within the crowded stadium was eager to assist. Normally, evening session ticket buyers leave after the first scheduled match ends, but on this particular occasion, they lingered to support Osaka’s late-night debut against Caroline Garcia. It remains to be seen if Osaka heard them or not; she left with her headphones securely in place and an expression of confusion on her face.

Paradoxically, it was a smiling Garcia who appeared to relish the occasion more—he arrived to merely a few enthusiastic applause from a one-row French rooting section. Garcia had never been slated to play second at night in her 15-year career; players don’t usually appreciate playing second, but she seized the opportunity to play in a major match that would be seen by millions of people.

Naomi Osaka’s

“I play tennis for this kind of match,” Garcia said. “I wanted to enjoy myself and take full advantage of the situation, win or lose.”

The disparate attitudes of the players were evident in their performance. Osaka was reactive, Garcia took the initiative. Garcia entered the game with a plan in mind, one that he kept to: pack the baseline, attack the return, and land the first punch. Even though Osaka is often one of the WTA’s most potent ball-strikers, she was never able to control the match. She continued to work on her backhand swing in between points halfway through the second set, attempting to quicken her own preparation.

Garcia had 34 wins against Osaka’s 20 (a difference of 14). 51 percent of her initial serves were made by her. She was never given a chance to fail. For a player with her level of return-of-serve ability, she won only 10 of 65 points when Garcia served. She did, however, serve large enough to win the set 6-4, 7-6 (2) and keep it close.

Naomi Osaka's early Australian Open tennis  
Naomi Osaka’s early Australian Open tennis  

But in the crucial second-set tiebreaker, Garcia came through with three aces and two forehand winners to win easily. She drew strength from the pro-Osaka crowd instead of opposing them.

Garcia remarked, “I was feeling good out there.” “I desired to enjoy myself.”

Glancing back down the passageway, Osaka passed her name once more with a gloomy expression. In Australia, her comeback never got a chance to take off. Garcia was undoubtedly a difficult draw because to her ability to rush a rusty opponent in addition to her prior Top 5 status. Afterward, Osaka expressed her satisfaction with her performance and appeared to realize that she would not be able to achieve perfection at such a young age.

She remarked, “I felt like it was a really good match.” “I think I did the best I could have done, in my opinion.”

Of course, she made exceptions.

She said, “I felt like I was really hesitant and on my back foot all the time.” I speculate that it could be because I haven’t played matches for a long time. I was pondering where to go a little too much.

Obviously, I have to remind myself things like, ‘Hey, you were pregnant like six months ago,'” the woman remarked. However, I believe it is really difficult to play well as a server and avoid making too many returns.

What insight into Osaka’s upcoming season can we gain, if any, from her journey to Australia? She acknowledges that she needs more games, but she’s pleased with herself for being at least competitive in the three that she’s played so far. She stated that she intends to play in Charleston, Miami, Indian Wells, Dubai, and “then a full clay season.”

In the upcoming months, Osaka’s racquet will get quicker and her decision-making more intuitive. But when I consider her 2024, I have two questions.

First, before she begins to win, how much more losing can she take? Naturally, every player detests to lose, but Osaka in particular feels this way—losing is both her boon and her bane. Despite the good things she stated during her news conference, her dismal expression as she left Laver was very evident. Even at her peak, Osaka was never a consistent championship winner, so every one of her rivals will be prepared for her, just as Garcia was today. She has only won three tournaments in her career outside of the Slams.
Secondly, what is her projected standing against the WTA in 2024? When Osaka was at her best, she easily defeated her opponents; but have Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elena Rybakina since caught up?

Naomi Osaka's early Australian Open tennis  
Naomi Osaka’s early Australian Open tennis  

That is everything for the future. For now, we can agree that Osaka’s star power and distinct personality are welcome to return to the court and interview setting. She continued to wear the glistening gold Nike jacket she wore on the court and intended to wear for the duration of the tournament when she showed up for her news conference today.

To the press’s chuckles, Osaka remarked, “I’m a little sad because this outfit is really cool and you won’t see it again.” “I had to wear it in here because of that.”

With any luck, the season will allow her to wear her looks for longer.

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