The first test of Naomi Osaka’s new approach to tennis might have been when she completely whiffed on an overhead to give her opponent a break point on Day 1 of the no-Novak-Djokovic Australian Open.
Osaka didn’t chuck her racket. She didn’t roll her eyes. She smiled.
“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,” Osaka said. “Might as well enjoy it while I still can.”
In Osaka’s mind, the drama involving nine-time champion Djokovic’s deportation on the eve of the Australian Open was something for the players in the men’s draw to worry about. Osaka’s title defense began smoothly enough: She won the first five games on the way to a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Camila Osorio on the tournament’s main court.
With so much attention on the 11-day saga of Djokovic’s attempt to participate in the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, and bid for a fourth consecutive title at Melbourne Park, the returns of Osaka and Rafael Nadal have been overshadowed.
Osaka wasn’t bothered by that. Nadal didn’t seem to be put off by it, either, renewing his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam singles title with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 win over Marcos Giron.
“Growing up, I’ve looked up to him,” said Giron, a 28-year-old from the US. “He’s one the absolute legends of the game.”
Nadal is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 major singles titles each, the most in the history of men’s tennis. With Djokovic unable to defend his title in Melbourne because he didn’t meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination criteria, the door is slightly more ajar to Nadal.
Osaka’s main concern, meanwhile, is winning a fifth major title, and her third at the Australian Open.
After winning here last year, capturing her second Australian Open title in three years, Osaka pulled out of the 2021 French Open before the second round, then sat out Wimbledon. She played at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron, but ended her 2021 season early after a third-round loss and a teary news conference at the US Open.
Two of her goals for 2022, she said last week, were to stay completely composed on the court and off, and to enjoy the game.
The top-ranked Djokovic’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to mount a title defense involved two court hearings and time in immigration hotel detention.
It began when he was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and Tennis Australia in order to play in the Australian Open.
That exemption, based on evidence that he recently recovered from COVID-19, apparently allowed him to receive a visa to enter Australia. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him.
Showing evidence of vaccination is a requirement for anyone — players, coaches, fans, others — entering Melbourne Park for the tournament.
On Monday, Djokovic landed in Dubai, then caught a flight to Belgrade.