Two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka made a welcome return to Melbourne Park with a hard-earned victory in her first tour outing in four months on Tuesday.
Picking up where she left off with the women’s singles trophy on Rod Laver Arena last February – her fourth hard-court major – the top seed in the Melbourne Summer Set 1 event defeated world No.61 Alize Cornet 6-4 3-6 6-3.
Later in the day, unheralded Argentine Facundo Bagnis bundled out former world No.1 Andy Murray at the first hurdle of the Melbourne Summer Set men's tournament.
The world No.76 had won just 30 tour-level matches since 2011 before the clash, but in a brilliant display, Bagnis handed his Scottish opponent a 6-3 5-7 6-3 defeat in two hours and 27 minutes.
Meanwhile, it was Osaka's second win from as many meetings with France's Cornet.
She also saw off the former world No.11 at Melbourne Park in her first outing of last season before her march through the Australian Open draw for the loss of one set only weeks later.
“I really love playing here. I love New York, but [the Australian Open] might be my favourite slam so it feels really good to always come back here… It feels really nice to play in front of people,” Osaka said.
It marked the 24-year-old’s first tour match since a third-round US Open defeat to eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez in September.
Osaka announced an indefinite leave from the tour for mental health reasons after her Flushing Meadows departure, one of only two majors she contested in 2021.
In cool and cloudy conditions at Melbourne Park, this was an ideal test of where she stood as she built towards her bid to defend a major for the first time.
“Shout out to my team. I really love them, they're like my family,” Osaka said. “Of course, I took time off so they told me to let them know when I was ready. I guess when I got bored enough at home… I just texted them and said I would love to play again… so they came over and, yeah, that's kind of how it went.”
Osaka had the match well within her grasp when she led a set and 3-1 before a dip in intensity and her opponent’s relentless counterpunching flipped momentum.
While last season was not Cornet’s most consistent, she reached her 14th tour final in Chicago on hard courts where she fell to Elina Svitolina and scored back-to-back grass-court wins over world No.5 Bianca Andreescu at Berlin and Wimbledon.
The Frenchwoman was no stranger to big upsets, having prevailed against Top 10 opponents 22 times before.
But no sooner had she reeled off five straight games to level the match than Osaka put a stop to the rot; her 20 unforced errors from the second set hastily tidied up as she set a second-round clash with Maryna Zanevska, a 6-3 6-4 winner over Petra Martic.
“For me, I feel like I probably made a lot of unforced errors today, but I kind of expected that because it is the first match,” Osaka said. “I was really nervous so I'm just glad that I was able to hold my serve in the last game.”
Bagnis scopes out Rod Laver Arena
A day earlier, Bagnis made a special trip to an empty Rod Laver Arena to gauge some idea of competing on the sprawling court against a three-time major winner in Murray.
Without the crowds, officials, much less a main draw opponent, it was merely a glimpse of the real deal.
His special trip had laid a small foundation for a magnificent upset.
“In the beginning it was a pleasure to play against Andy and right now to beat him is amazing. I'm really happy,” Bagnis said.
“Actually, every point in the match had amazing shots today… Yesterday, I came to see the stadium, to see it all around because the atmosphere is different when you play on any court outside… I enjoyed it a lot. It was so good for me.”
Murray, a winner of 46 career titles, had already accepted he had likely contested his final match at Melbourne Park when he saluted a standing ovation following a bruising five-set exit at the Australian Open three years ago.
The five-time AO runner-up conceded there was no guarantee he would overcome a recurring hip injury after his defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut at Melbourne Arena.
Following a successful operation and rehabilitation of his problematic hip, the Scot aimed to claim his first match win on Australian soil since the 2019 Brisbane International and looked to have swung momentum in his favour after he took the second set at the one-hour, 41-minute mark.
But the 31-year-old Bagnis kept Murray’s return game, in particular, off balance with his sliding lefty serve and change of pace off the ground.
The Argentine broke Murray twice in the final set to secure a second-round showdown against third seed Grigor Dimitrov.
Having fallen in the opening round of Australian Open qualifying last year, Bagnis had jetted closer to home only to lose his first match in a clay-court Challenger event in Concepcion, Chile while the season’s opening major was taking place across the Pacific.
“The beginning of last year was not so easy for me. I [had to] work a lot to come back to the top 100,” Bagnis said. “I'm so happy to be here one more time. I think it [will be] a pleasure to play the main draw in the Australian Open. I try to ensure it every year because I'm [getting] a bit old, maybe.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to play big tournaments with the people enjoying in the stadium.”
Doubles duty for Nadal, Halep
Early Tuesday evening, Rafael Nadal contested his first official match since a second-round exit to Lloyd Harris in Washington last August when he combined with Spanish compatriot Jaume Munar to defeat Argentine duo, Sebastian Baez and Tomas Martin Etcheverry.
The Spanish pair prevailed 6-3 3-6 [10-4] in 96 minutes before a packed Court 13 crowd to book a second-round meeting with fourth seeds Andrey Golubev and Franko Skugor.
Nadal had been sidelined since August due to a left foot injury and will begin his singles campaign against American Marcos Giron or Lithuanian qualifier Ricardis Berankis.
Another former No.1, Simona Halep, took the court for her first match of 2022 when she and Romanian compatriot Elena-Gabriela Ruse fell to second seeds Bernarda Pera and Katerina Siniakova 6-2 7-6(5) in the first round of Melbourne Summer Set 2 doubles.
Halep suffered a calf tear in Rome last May, which forced her to miss Roland Garros and her Wimbledon title defence and will contest her first singles match of the season against Australian Destanee Aiava.
Top seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai scored a 6-3 6-4 win over Natela Dzalamidze and Kamilla Rakhimova.
Pegula upset at Melbourne Summer Set #2
Earlier, world No.18 Jessica Pegula fell to Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6(6) 6-3 in the opening round of the Melbourne Summer Set 2 event.
The top seed reached her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at last year’s Australian Open with victories over the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina.
Having let three set points slip in the opening set on Rod Laver Arena, the American fell to the world No.62 in an hour and 45 minutes.
Of the home hopes, unranked 16-year-old Taylah Preston was unable to back up her victory over former world No.5 Sara Errani as compatriot Aiava booked her Summer Set 1 main draw berth 6-4 6-4.
Following 11 months sidelined due to injury, Kim Birrell fell short of joining Aiava in the main draw after she went down to Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove 6-4 6-4, while main-draw wildcard Anastasia Rodionova fell in straight sets to Ruse in the opening round.
In the men’s Melbourne Summer Set event, Australian Rinky Hijikata saved a match point to qualify with his first top 100 win over Henri Laaksonen.
The 20-year-old advanced 4-6 7-6(8) 6-4 to join countrymen Alexei Popyrin, Jordan Thompson and Chris O’Connell in the main draw.