Naomi Osaka wants you to know she has one major goal – absolutely no pun intended – for the 2022 season.
“I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun,” she said at media day in Melbourne. “I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could. I just feel like for me, I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that.
“And I just need to find a way to enjoy the game again because that’s the reason why I was playing in the first place.”
In a sometimes turbulent 2021, that wasn’t always an easy concept to embrace. After withdrawing from the French Open and skipping Wimbledon, Osaka played sparingly. Now, after a sabbatical – she decompressed from the pressure of playing elite tennis virtually nonstop since the age of 3 by talking with family and friends – the 24-year-old is back and appears ready to challenge for the Australian Open title, among others.
The No.13 seed takes the first step Monday in Melbourne, playing her first-round match against 20-year-old Camila Osorio of Colombia. Osorio has never played Osaka. The two are scheduled for the second match on Rod Laver Arena.
Oddsmakers have slotted Osaka – one of 13 major champions in the draw – just behind No.1 Ashleigh Barty as the favorite to win at Melbourne Park. Barty will enjoy the support of her fellow Australians, even with crowds limited to 50 percent capacity.
Still, these numbers – particularly in the context of today’s wide-open women’s game – are quite remarkable. Osaka has won four of the past:
- 12 majors staged
- 10 majors she’s played
- 7 hard-court majors
Since 2018, Osaka leads the Grand Slam leaderboard with four, followed by Barty and Simona Halep (two) and seven others with one each.
Osaka began the season at the Melbourne 250 and was stretched to three sets by Alize Cornet. The next two rounds were vintage Osaka – big serve and penetrating groundstrokes. She dropped a total of only eight games in victories over Maryna Zanevska and Andrea Petkovic. Citing an abdominal injury, Osaka protected her Australian Open ambitions by pulling out in advance of the semifinals.
Osorio is coming off a terrific season that saw her ranking rise to No.53 – all the way from No.186. She won her first career title in Bogota, was a finalist in Tenerife and a semifinalist in Charleston and Belgrade.
Going forward in Melbourne, that relatively low seeding for Osaka is likely to make her life more difficult. It’s possible she could meet Dayana Yastremska in the second round and Melbourne Summer Set 2 champion Amanda Anisimova in the third. If Osaka makes it to the fourth round, the potential opponent is Barty – a match that would have the feel of a major final.
Osaka said she isn’t sure how ambitious this year’s schedule will be, but hopes that what happened last year won’t reoccur.
“I feel like for me, it was just like an extreme buildup, and you just happened to see it all release last year,” she said. “I don’t really feel the same way. I feel like everyone has their moments, of course, and that’s what makes you human.”
Other notable matches:
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty versus Lesia Tsurenko (First night match, Rod Laver Arena)
Barty, who has posted three consecutive year-end No.1s, began 2022 with an impressive title run in Adelaide, defeating Coco Gauff, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek and, in the final, Elena Rybakina. Playing in the comfort of home, she’s got a manageable first-round match against Tsurenko, but would have to contend with a loaded top quarter. Tsurenko, a 32-year-old from Ukraine, is ranked No.120 and split two matches in the Melbourne Summer Set 2.
Head-to-head: 2-1, Barty, the last a three-set win in the first round of the 2020 Australian Open.
No.4 Barbora Krejcikova versus Andrea Petkovic (Last match, Kia Arena)
The reigning French Open champion started her 2022 season with a stellar run at the Sydney Tennis Classic last week. The highlight was a three-set semifinal thriller with Anett Kontaveit decided in a 14-12 tiebreak. Incredibly, Krejcikova saved seven match points. The final went to Paula Badosa in another third-set tiebreak. Meanwhile, Petkovic defeated Liudmila Samsonova and Clara Burel a week ago in Melbourne before falling to Osaka in the quarterfinals.
Head-to-head: 1-0, Krejcikova, second round 2021 Wimbledon in straight sets.
No.8 Paula Badosa versus Ajla Tomljanovic (Last match, Margaret Court Arena)
Badosa may have been the surprise champion last fall at Indian Wells, but now that she’s a Top 10 player, the Spaniard is a revelation no more. She sprinted through the Sydney field, taking out Krejcikova 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4) in a 2-hour, 22-minute final. Badosa has now won 10 straight tiebreaks, a tribute to playing terrific tennis in the critical moments. Tomljanovic, the 28-year-old Australian, defeated qualifier Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in Sydney’s first round before falling to … Badosa.
Head-to-head: 1-0, Badosa.
No.11 Sofia Kenin versus Madison Keys (Third match, John Cain Arena)
The 26-year-old Keys was an Australian Open semifinalist in 2015 and reached the quarterfinals three years later. Despite a ranking of No.87 coming into the Adelaide International 2 this past week – her lowest in nine years – she sprinted to her sixth career title. Keys defeated fellow American Alison Riske 6-1, 6-2 in the final. Keys also had a solid three-set win over Coco Gauff in the semifinals. Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion, fell to Barty in the quarterfinals last week in Adelaide.
Head-to-head: 2-1, Keys, all in 2019. Kenin took the first, in Rome in three sets, but Keys won in straight sets in Cincinnati and New York.