Naomi Osaka began her title defence and quest for a third Australian Open with a resounding 6-3 6-3 victory over Colombian Camila Osorio on Rod Laver Arena.
“I feel really excited to be here,” the 13th seed said in a pre-tournament interview on Saturday.
“Playing in the Australian Open means a lot to me,” continued the 25 year-old, acknowledging nervousness from the added pressure associated with being a defending champion.
Osaka said she’s approaching the major in a newfound way.
“I brought a journal with me so I’ve been writing how I feel every day.”
While the Japanese star avoids looking ahead in the draw, she said she unintentionally learned about a potential blockbuster clash with top seed Ash Barty but remained laser focused on her first round match: a first-time meeting with Osorio.
“It's really exciting to be in times like this,” she said, embracing the unknown. You play new players, you see new faces…it’s kind of refreshing. Hopefully I won't be in for a shock,” said the right-hander.
Osorio, making her main draw debut in Melbourne, had a breakthrough 2021 season during which she reached the third round of Wimbledon as a qualifier and reached the Tenerife Ladies Open, defeating top seed Elina Svitolina en route.
How the match unfolded
Beginning in overcast conditions, Osaka needed just 100 seconds to hold serve as she raced to a 3-0 lead. The 20-year-old Osorio was unable to convert a pair of game points in the fourth game as Osaka, the more experienced of the duo, dictated play off both wings.
It took until the fifth game for Osorio to land her first winner of the opening set, a backhand lob, as a commanding Osaka stretched her lead to 5-0.
But a slew of six unforced errors in the ensuing two games off the racket of Japan’s top player – including a flubbed overhead that Osaka laughed off – enabled Osorio to claw back some of the deficit.
Seizing the momentum, the diminutive right-hander held to love and generated two break points, but Osaka, wielding her powerful forehand, fended off both to clinch the set 6-3.
As clouds parted to make way for the afternoon sun, Osorio created two break-point chances in Osaka’s opening service game, but was unable to capture either.
The composed Osaka then broke Osorio and consolidated for a 3-1 lead. Games proceeded on serve until the ninth game, when Osorio pummelled a backhand into the net to hand Osaka the win.
“I thought I played pretty well given the circumstances, I didn’t have a lot of information about my opponent,” said Osaka in her on-court interview, crediting Osorio’s fighting spirit as a “great quality”.
“I hope that we gave you a really good performance. It always feels very special for me to come back here,” she added, citing her penchant for hot conditions.
“I have a lot of really good memories here.”
The key stat
Osaka struck 19 winners to Osorio’s five, and her dominating groundstrokes helped alleviate pressure created by her low first-serve percentage which, at 51 per cent, she’ll seek to improve in the next round.
What it means for Osorio
The Colombian, who won through qualifying at last year’s Roland Garros, can take away lessons from her battle with the world No. 14, in which she was able to stretch more than Ons Jabeur, to whom she lost 6-0 6-1 loss at the US Open.
What's next for Osaka?
In the second round, Osaka faces Madison Brengle, who advanced after Dayana Yastremska retired trailing 1-6, 6-0, 0-5. Brengle and Osaka have met only once before in 2013, with the American triumphing 6-2, 6-2.
After working on her backhand slice during the off-season, Osaka said she finally felt comfortable enough to add it to her toolkit during her first round encounter. The four-time Grand Slam champion said she is prioritising enjoying herself on court and avoiding negative emotions that can come with the weight of the pursuit of perfection.
“I can't expect myself to win every match, but I do expect myself to have fun and challenge myself,” said Osaka. “I'm here because I want to be here and because I find that it's fun for me.
“I accept the fact that I'll have dips, and I need to figure out a way to overcome it.”
Osaka also revealed she has a superstition that might sound familiar to tennis fans who have watched 2009 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal in action.
“I need my water bottles to be completely straight, I’m not sure why that is,” said Osaka, who consciously avoids stepping on the court’s white lines as well as the painted Melbourne logo.