Osaka shrugs off expectations and Barty sets tone on day one of Australian Open

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<span>Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters
  • Defending champion Naomi Osaka beats Camila Osorio 6-3, 6-3

  • World No 1 Ash Barty demolishes Lesia Tursenko 6-0, 6-1


As the attention in Melbourne Park swiftly shifted from Australia’s legal courts to its tennis courts, the two most successful women’s players over the past few years both took their first steps towards a possible collision in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka, the defending champion in Melbourne, returned to grand slam competition early in the day by defeating Camila Osorio 6-3, 6-3. The world number one, Ashleigh Barty, followed her later in the day as she picked Lesia Tsurenko apart 6-0, 6-1 to reach the second round.

Related: Craig Tiley and Tennis Australia created an exemption system that many saw as a ‘get Novak Djokovic in’ process | Emma Kemp

For Osaka, the opening day of the Australian Open marked another step in her return after a turbulent 2021 season that shifted with her announcement that she would not be participating in press conferences at the French Open as they affected her mental health. It led to a firestorm of criticism from many who don’t even follow tennis, a disproportionate response from the grand slam tournaments and at the US Open she said that she would be taking an indefinite break from tennis due to her mental health.

Osaka made her return to competition at a smaller WTA event in Melbourne, where she won three matches and played well enough before withdrawing from the semi-final due to an abdominal injury. Monday’s contest against Osorio, a quick and resourceful 20-year-old from Colombia, showcased the rust that is still to come off. Osaka wobbled slightly in the opening set after leading 5-0, but she otherwise controlled the match until the end.

Throughout the week, Osaka openly discussed her time away, which she anticipated would be far longer. She had spent her off-season with friends and family and she was unusually candid with them, digesting emotions she never had time to address during the grind of the tour. Her return was unplanned; she was bored at home one day, she reached for her rackets and, after reconnecting with her team, the Australian Open soon became a possibility.

A few days ago, a fan on Instagram suggested that Osaka should play with something to prove in Melbourne. Her answer was a reflection of how her mindset has changed in recent months; she listed some of the critical comments she has heard people say about her, most of which she has since proven wrong, and she concluded that she no longer cares about what people think.

“I definitely feel like in [this] point of my career, it’s not like long or anything, but I’ve kind of been weighed down too much trying to prove myself,” she said on Monday. “You guys have seen me through that entire phase. I just want to have fun, first of all. I can’t expect myself to win every match, but I do expect myself to have fun and challenge myself.”

After the stress of last season, Osaka has frequently talked about the need to enjoy herself on and off the court. Throughout her match against Osorio there were moments that could have sparked anger or frustration, like a whiffed overhead that led to a run of games against, but she responded with a smile each time. She says she is consciously choosing a more lighthearted approach.

“I came back when I wanted to come back,” she said. “I just felt like there are situations where I previously would get upset. But at this point in my life, like, I’m here because I want to be here and because I find that it’s fun for me. Might as well enjoy it while I still can.”

Hours later, as the sun began to set on Rod Laver Arena, Barty took to the court for the first time in Melbourne this year. While Osaka is in the midst of finding herself, it should not be forgotten that Barty already went through a similar process when she was far less prominent, taking a break from tennis between 2014 and 2016.

Today she is at the height of her powers, having been ranked No 1 for 105 consecutive weeks and 112 overall, just five weeks shy of Justine Henin’s tally. She is the undisputed best player in the world and, more importantly, she now seems extremely comfortable in her own skin.

Barty’s first round opponent, Tsurenko, entered the main draw through qualifying but she has previously beaten Barty and reached the top 25. Tsurenko is an excellent athlete with a sweet backhand, but her serve is one of the weakest in the game and her forehand can break down under minimal pressure.

Thus, Barty spent her time back on one of her favourite courts in the world ruthlessly picking at every weakness in sight. She led 6-0, 5-0 with two match points yet she was still ashen-faced when she failed to convert either point. She finished Tsurenko off in 54 minutes.

“I’m right where I am,” she said after being asked about being only 25 years old yet a veteran in the game. “Where I am at the moment is a product of all the experiences that I have had, the hard learnings, the incredible moments, and I am where I am. We just accept that, we enjoy the journey as we go, we try and be really present and enjoy the moment.”

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