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Naomi Osaka is determined to get back to having "fun" on the tennis court after making a winning return to action in Melbourne on Tuesday.
The four-time major winner banked a three-set victory over France's Alize Cornet in her much-anticipated comeback match, having taken a four-month mental health break from the sport.
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Confessing to placing too much pressure on herself, a relaxed Osaka she loved the "vibes" at Melbourne Park after brushing off a second-set stumble to scramble to a 6-4 3-6 6-3 win in the Melbourne Summer Set.
— wta (@WTA) January 4, 2022
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.
Osaka was also famously brought to tears after a tough line of questioning from a reporter at the Cincinnati Masters - something she has vowed to never let happen again after revealing her major "goal" for 2022.
Quoted on the WTA website after the victory over Cornet, Osaka said: “I only really have one major goal this year, and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that.
“For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.
“Also, I have a goal in the pressroom, that I’m never going to cry again, so hopefully that works out in my favour.
“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.”
Osaka also spoke of her love for the Australian Open, which she also won in 2019, and 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."
Following her Australian Open triumph last year, Osaka withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons after being threatened with expulsion over refusing to fulfil media duties, and then missed Wimbledon.
The 24-year-old broke down in tears in Cincinnati in August during what was her first press conference since the French Open withdrawal.
Naomi Osaka bursts into tears and exits podium while addressing how she has felt since withdrawing from French Open. pic.twitter.com/xBn8XRF8FB
— The Shadow League (@ShadowLeague) August 16, 2021
2021 took heavy toll on Naomi Osaka
Osaka represented Japan at the Tokyo Olympics in July, losing to Marketa Vondrousova in the third round, before making the US Open exit at the same stage in September.
The four-time major winner admitted she doubted her ability to be ready for the year's opening grand slam tournament.
“I actually really thought I wasn’t going to play for most of this year,” Osaka said.
“I’m really happy with myself that I love the sport that much because I literally said that I was unsure when I was going to play after the US Open and I’m here right now.
“In the break I was feeling like I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I’m pretty sure a lot of people can relate to that. Of course you never know what the future holds, but it was definitely an indecisive time. But I’m really happy to be sitting here right now.”
She added: “What probably got me ready again was just talking to people. 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.
“Then during the off-season I just hung out with my friends and talked to my family a lot. I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself. Then I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game.
“It’s not like it ever completely went away, but I felt like it got overshadowed by a lot of emotions that I was feeling just by constantly playing year after year. I started tennis when I was three years old, and I never really took a break. Sometimes it’s just good to remember why you’re playing and stuff.”
Osaka will face Belgium’s Maryna Zanevska in the second round.
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