Naomi Osaka has fun but Caroline Garcia gets the win at Australian Open 2024 | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Naomi Osaka has fun but Caroline Garcia gets the win at Australian Open 2024

By, Mumbai
Jan 15, 2024 09:59 PM IST

The former world No. 1 is a four-time Major winner and she showed enough hopes in her Grand Slam comeback to leave fans wanting more.

You could see it when she berated herself for making unforced errors, when she stood well inside the baseline to pounce on second serves, when she pumped her fist after nailing thunderous winners. Naomi Osaka, playing her first Grand Slam match in 17 months, was as hungry as ever in the first round against Caroline Garcia at the Australian Open on Monday.

France's Caroline Garcia (R) shakes hands with Japan's Naomi Osaka after their women's singles match(AFP)
France's Caroline Garcia (R) shakes hands with Japan's Naomi Osaka after their women's singles match(AFP)

And for the 86 minutes that the contest lasted, it felt great. The two-time champion at Melbourne Park was given the primetime slot at the Rod Laver Arena and the crowd was firmly in her corner. They roared when the Japanese star, with that slight head tilt, blasted her famous forehands and dug deep to keep the show going. But it wasn’t to be as 16th seed Garcia, one of the cleanest ball-strikers on tour, held her own and closed out a 6-4, 7-6(2) win.

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Osaka entered the Australian Open after a second-round defeat at the Brisbane International earlier this month. Before that, she had a lengthy spell on the sidelines and gave birth to her first child in July 2023. The last Grand Slam match she played was in August 2022 at the US Open, and her last appearance on tour came a month later at a WTA 500 event in Tokyo.

Nonetheless, former world No. 1 Osaka is a four-time Major winner and there’s a certain heft attached with her presence on court. At this Australian Open, only top seed Iga Swiatek has as many Grand Slam titles as her, while the top three challengers – Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff – have one each.

She may be ranked 831 now but Osaka remains one of the biggest draws in the sport, and during her clash with Garcia, she showed glimpses of her extraordinary skill to enthral those watching. It was, however, the 26-year-old’s determination under pressure that did more to raise hopes despite a straight-sets loss.

Garcia broke in the fifth game of the first set after a string of unforced errors from her opponent. Osaka pushed hard to get back on serve but the French player was solid in crunch moments and managed to gain a lead in the match. The battle became more interesting in the second set, though, as both players lost just one point between them on serve through the first six games.

Neither player had a high first-serve percentage but they took the second set to a tie-breaker without conceding a single break point. Osaka looked pumped, the crowd was hooked, and it seemed a decider was on the cards. But Garcia, a former world No. 4 who reached the US Open semi-final in 2022, showed great composure to win five straight points and seal the deal.

“I was so anxious I was just trying to breathe; you know?” said Garcia on court after her victory. “I knew I would have to be very solid against Naomi and to bring some balls back and be as aggressive as I could every time, I had chances. Obviously, I had a lot of pressure on my serve – she was really trying to put pressure on my second serve, but I managed to stay solid and to be a little more aggressive at the end.”

For Osaka, there were plenty of positives to take away as she aims to get back to her best. Heading into the tournament, she had spoken about “feeling the nostalgia again” and her desire to win more Grand Slams. But she also emphasised the need to temper expectations.

“I thought it was a really good match. I felt like I did the best I could possibly do,” said Osaka in her post-match press conference. “It was just really nice to be at Rod Laver (Arena) again and hear the audience, how much they interacted with the match. That was fun. I remember watching the tournament on the television last year and am really grateful they put me on this court tonight.

“Of course, I have to tell myself stuff like ‘hey, six months ago you were pregnant’. There’s a voice in my head that’s like ‘who are you to think that you can come back and immediately start winning matches?’ I don’t know, I expect myself to always stand a chance anyway. So, I guess just being nicer to myself is a key thing I learned during my time away.”

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