Two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka says 2022 is all about having fun after her tennis career so dramatically unravelled last year.
Confessing to placing too much pressure on herself, a relaxed Osaka made a winning return on Tuesday from a four-month mental health break, with the Japanese superstar saying she loved the “vibes” at Melbourne Park.
The four-time major winner banked a three-set victory over France’s Alize Cornet in her much-anticipated comeback match.
Now ranked 13th, Osaka brushed off a second-set stumble to scramble to a 6-4 3-6 6-3 win in the WTA 250 tournament.
The former world No.1 committed more than 50 unforced errors and blew a 3-1 lead in the second but her class was undeniable.
Osaka last featured at the US Open in September when she suffered a shock loss to Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez before tearfully announcing she was taking an indefinite break from the sport to focus on her mental health.
It brought a tumultuous year to a close after Osaka withdrew from the French Open after refusing to do any media and then missed Wimbledon altogether.
The 24-year-old also admitted the pressure of being the face of the Tokyo Games might have been too much, falling short in her quest to medal after lighting the Olympic cauldron.
But following her victory on Tuesday, Osaka spoke of her love for the Australian Open, which she also won in 2019, and also regaining her passion for tennis after her motivation took a heavy hit last year.
“Whenever I come back here it’s like a breath of fresh air,” Osaka said.
“Everyone is super nice and the vibes here are really good.
“I really love playing here – I live in New York, but this might be my favourite slam.
“It feels really good to always come back here.”
Osaka said she’d set herself one major goal this year, and that was to have fun and focus on improving her game rather than results.
“I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the rankings and I need to find a way to enjoy the game again because that’s the reason I played the game in the first place,” she said.
“I just want to feel like every time I step on the court, I’m having fun.
“And also I have a goal in the press room that I’m never going to cry again so hopefully that works out.”
Osaka said taking time to get bored, sleepovers with friends which she missed out as a tennis prodigy, and talking more about her feelings had helped her prepare mentally to return to tennis.
“I tend to internalise everything and I think that might be just based on how I grew up – I didn’t really have that many friends so I didn’t really talk to anyone in the first place,” she said.
“During the off-season, I just hung out with my friends and talked to my family a lot and I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself.
“I just like you know slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game.
“It’s not like it ever completely went away but it got overshadowed by a lot of emotions that I was feeling just by constantly playing year after year.”
Osaka will next face either Croatian Petra Martic or Belgian Maryna Zanevska.