MELBOURNE: A nervous Naomi Osaka overcame a second-set wobble to make a winning return Tuesday in her first match since taking an indefinite break after a tearful US Open exit in September.
The four-time Grand Slam champion, who has slid to 13 in the rankings, admitted after her third-round defeat at Flushing Meadow that she was “dealing with some stuff” emotionally.
She had mostly laid low since before flying into Melbourne last week to prepare for her Australian Open defense.
The Japanese superstar took the first step towards that goal at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament but was nowhere near her best in beating France’s 61st-ranked veteran Alize Cornet 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 on Rod Laver Arena.
“It always feels really good to come back here,” Osaka told the crowd in her on-court interview. “It feels really nice to play in front of people.”
Osaka looked to be cruising after taking the opening set 6-4 and racing to a 3-1 lead in the second, but lost focus as the 31-year-old Cornet won five straight games to level the match.
The 24-year-old pulled herself together to score an early break in the third set and never relinquished it.
She made several mistakes in a rusty first competitive outing for four months, and admitted nerves played a part.
“I feel like I made a lot of unforced errors, but I kind of expected that because it is my first match and I was really nervous,” she said.
“I’m just so glad I was able to hold my serve in that last game.”
The win set up a last-16 clash with either Croatia’s Petra Martic or Belgium’s Maryna Zanevska.
Osaka last year withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon over mental health issues, saying her problems were exacerbated by speaking to the media after matches.
She had also bowed out of the Tokyo Olympics in the early rounds in July.
“I feel like for me recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad,” Osaka said after her US Open loss.
“I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry.
“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
Osaka did not hold a pre-tournament press conference in Melbourne this week.