Naomi Osaka comeback spoiled by early loss at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — Naomi Osaka returned to Grand Slam tennis after maternity leave in the same way she left it, with a first-round loss after going down 6-4 7-6 (2) to Caroline Garcia on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open on Monday.

Taking on the experienced French 16th seed, who is an aggressive baseliner like Osaka, was always going to be a big challenge for the two-time Australian Open champion, who returned to tournament tennis only two weeks ago after being out for 15 months.

The power that took Osaka to four Grand Slam titles before she took time off to have daughter Shai was still there, but it was always going to take Osaka, 26, time to rediscover her accuracy in clutch moments.

A double fault gave Garcia, 30, the first break point of the match in the fifth game, and the former world No. 4 converted it with alacrity to edge ahead.

Osaka had a sniff of a break back at deuce in the eighth game but dumped a routine backhand into the net. Garcia held with back-to-back aces before going on to take the set.

The Japanese former world No. 1 won her first three service games of the second set to love, but Garcia’s serving was brilliant and Osaka was unable to put any pressure on it.

Osaka had beaten Garcia 6-2, 6-3 on the way to her 2021 triumph at Melbourne Park. But this was a much tighter contest, with the second set decided in a tiebreaker.

Still hitting the mark with her first serves, Garcia raced to a big lead and clinched the win on her first match point when Osaka dumped another backhand into the net.

“The competitive in me is really frustrated that I’m not winning these matches, of course,” Osaka told a post-match news conference. “So I wouldn’t say, like, this comeback is how I thought because I’m delusional enough to think I could have won the tournament.”

She smiled at that point, and added: “I think my delusion is what allows me to win the tournaments.”

“I have a lot of respect for Naomi as a person and as a player — 15 months she’s been away,” Garcia said. “I’m very glad to see her back. Six months after giving birth, she’s playing quite amazing already. We have to watch out.”

Osaka was one of three past Australian Open champions who returned to play at Melbourne Park for the first time as mothers, joining 2016 winner Angelique Kerber and 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki.

It was Osaka’s earliest exit in eight visits to the Australian Open and her third successive loss in the opening round of a Grand Slam after she fell at the first hurdle at the French and US Opens in 2022.

She took time out from tennis for her own wellbeing after those tournaments. She’s not planning any more breaks for now.

“Yeah, I think I just have to keep living day by day and training hard and playing a lot more matches,” she said. “And hopefully my dreams will come true.”

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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