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Barty and Osaka throw the bouquets before the heat of battle

  • Dan Imhoff

Naomi Osaka steadfastly halts unnecessary hypotheticals while an ever-scrupulous Ash Barty knows better than to entertain thoughts of grandeur and what-ifs on her home Grand Slam stage.

With Osaka’s fourth attempt at defending a major for the first time about to begin at Melbourne Park, why tangle up precious grey matter pondering draw distractions that may never see the light of day?

Top seed for the third year running, Barty admits she has bucket-list dreams distinct from bucket-list goals, but neither involve making wild public predictions.

Pressure point: Osaka returns as the defending AO women's champion

On the back of a year in which former world No.1 Osaka carefully decided to prioritise her mental health – she played just six events after her second Australian Open triumph last February – it made sense to simplify what counted.

So it came as little surprise when she politely interjected to ward off one reporter’s question on the draw down the track.

The truth of the matter remained: Osaka was on a collision course with current No.1 Barty for a blockbuster fourth round.

It was a much vaunted on-court rivalry level at two wins apiece, but one which had not played out since 2019.

MORE: AO 2022 women's singles draw

Whether it eventuated again at Melbourne Park in 2022 mattered not to Osaka as it had no bearing on her sentiments towards the reigning Wimbledon champion.

“For me I think she's the ideal No.1,” Osaka said. “She's so consistent. I saw last year all the sacrifices she made to, like, travel without coming back to Australia.

“I knew that must have been really tough… I think she's really amazing. She's always so positive. Her and her coach, they're always really nice to everyone that I can see. So, yeah, I really like her a lot.”

That stretch Barty spent living out of a suitcase without a scrap of downtime back home in Queensland extended from March to September, a period which proved especially fruitful as she added three tour titles and that second major to her 2019 Roland Garros trophy.

The respect was mutual for Osaka, an opponent with different off-court interests and a polar-opposite game style, but equally humble and averse to the limelight.

“She's proven time and time again that she is able to perform on the biggest stage,” Barty said. “She plays her way. She's been dominant on hard-court slams the last few years. It certainly is nice to see her back smiling and enjoying her tennis again.

“It was different not seeing her week-in week-out kind of at the back end of last year, even though for us, personally, we only played two or three tournaments in the back half of the year.

“Yeah, it is nice to see her back now enjoying her tennis and doing what she does best.”

Potential match-ups within Team Osaka or Team Barty were never mulled over beyond the next at hand.

First up for the 13th seed, 20-year-old Colombian Camila Osorio and coach Wim Fissette was already on the case.

“Knowing Wim, he's going to come at me with like a booklet of information, some of which I won't process,” Osaka said.

Top seed Barty faced a tricky opener against Ukrainian qualifier Lesia Tsurenko, a former world No.23, whom she needed three sets to move past two years ago at the same stage.

“Always a tough one against a qualifier, particularly someone who has been so successful in the past. She obviously knows how to win big matches,” Barty said.

Osaka admitted she was treating her sixth Australian Open campaign – her 19th major – with a different approach after she packed a journal to document her daily thoughts and invested in candles and incense when she arrived “so I built a routine in my room”.

“I think I've been defending champion like three times before that, and I've clearly never been able to defend it,” Osaka said of her Grand Slam record. “But I think there's, of course, added pressure.

“You always think about it more often than not… Currently, yes, I am a little bit nervous about having that ‘defending champion’ title on me, but, like, this is a whole new year and… a whole new tournament.”

Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka
Great rivals: will the next chapter play out in round four?

Those match-up what-ifs will inevitably be mulled over should each pass their opening three hurdles.

For now it is about managing expectations ahead of 2022's first major - one as the defending champion, the other as top seed.

“The role hasn't changed. The comfort level is exactly the same because for me, I'm just being me,” Barty said of her return as top seed. “Regardless of the number next to my name, that doesn't change the way we approach it.”