Osaka opens her season with a win over Cornet in Melbourne

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Naomi Osaka of Japan plays a forehand during her singles match against Alize Cornet of France at Summer Set tennis tournament ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Naomi Osaka is back in a place where she’s won two of her four Grand Slam singles titles and she’s feeling good vibes after some time off trying to rediscover her love for the game.

The Australian Open champion opened her 2022 season with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Alize Cornet on Tuesday in one of the Summer Set of tournaments in Melbourne.

Osaka was returning to Rod Laver Arena for the first time since winning the Australian Open title in February. It was also her first tour-level match since a third-round loss to Leylah Fernandez at the U.S. Open in September.

After that loss, Osaka said: “I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”

She also took time off earlier last year, a mental health break that began when she withdrew from the French Open before her second-round match. She also sat out Wimbledon, then returned for the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony.

After her opening win in Melbourne, Osaka said she’d set herself one major goal for this year: to enjoy the game.

“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.

After taking time to hang out with friends and family, she said she slowly started to regain the feeling of love for 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 said.

Osaka was up a set and a break before Cornet went on a five-game roll to force the match into a third set. The former No. 1-ranked Osaka got just over 38% of her first serves into play, had eight double-faults and 57 unforced errors, but countered that with 51 winners. She faced only three break points.

“I feel like I made a lot of unforced errors today,” the top-seeded Osaka said, “but I expected that because it is the first match and I was really nervous.”

Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic mean there’s a crammed schedule of events Down Under before the Australian Open starts on Jan. 17.

There are three events being played this week in Melbourne as part of Tennis Australia’s Summer Set of tournaments — two WTA tournaments and one ATP. In Adelaide, there is a joint ATP and WTA tournament this week. The ATP Cup is being played in Sydney.

Jessica Pegula, the top seed in the other women’s Summer Set tournament in Melbourne, lost to Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6 (6), 6-3 in the first round.

Pegula, who reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, led 5-3 and had set points before Begu rallied for victory.

In the men’s tournament in Melbourne, Facundo Bagnis beat former No. 1 Andy Murray 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, saving 11 of 13 break points. He will next play third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. Murray, a five-time finalist at the Australian Open, received a wild-card entry to play at the season’s opening major.

In Adelaide, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek opened her Adelaide International title defense with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Daria Saville, who was known as Daria Gavrilova before her recent marriage.

In earlier matches, American teenager Coco Gauff beat Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway 6-2, 6-1 to set up a second-round match against top-ranked Ash Barty, 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin beat Lucia Bronzetti 7-5, 7-5, and Anastasia Gasanova beat eighth-seeded Elina Svitolina 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

Two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka ousted fourth-seeded Paula Badosa 6-3, 6-2 in a night match.

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