Thu. May 26th, 2022

The first test of Naomi Osaka’s new approach to tennis could have been when she completely whizzed an overhead to give her opponent a break on the first day of the Novak Djokovic Australian Open.

Osaka did not throw his racket. She did not roll her eyes. She smiled.

“There are situations where I used to be upset. But at this point in my life, I’m here because I want to be here and because I think it’s fun for me,” Osaka said. “Can just as well enjoy it while I still can.”

In Osaka’s consciousness, the drama of the nine-time champion Djokovic’s expulsion on the eve of the Australian Open was something for the players in the men’s draw to worry about. Her title defense began smoothly enough: she won the first five games en route to a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Camila Osorio.

With so much attention paid to the 11-day saga of Djokovic’s attempts to enter this year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the return of Osaka and Rafael Nadal has been overshadowed.

Osaka was not bothered by it. Nadal also did not seem to be put off by it as he renewed his bid for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles title with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Marcos Giron.

Nadal is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 major singles titles each, mostly in men’s history. As Djokovic is unable to defend his crown in Melbourne because he did not meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination criteria, the door is a little more open for Nadal.

Osaka’s biggest concern, meanwhile, is winning a third Australian title in four years.

“To be completely honest, it did not really affect me,” Osaka said of the Djokovic drama. “My goal, as before this whole situation, is just to focus more on myself, what I need to do to get better.

“Me, I’m a tennis player. I want to focus on my matches. You who, I guess, an audience, focus on what’s in the news, right?”

A potential meeting in the fourth round with top-ranked Ash Barty can wait. Barty, aiming to be the first Australian woman to win the title in Melbourne since 1978, beat Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-1.

Osaka, after winning the title last year, withdrew from the French Open before the second round, and then sat out of Wimbledon. She played at the Olympics in Tokyo, where she turned on the kettle, but ended her 2021 season early after a loss in the third round and a tearful press conference at the US Open.

Two of her goals for 2022 are to stay fully composed on and off the field and to enjoy the game.

And yes, finally the focus was on tennis in Australia. It started in style, with a total of 64 singles matches on the opening day.

French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari, No. 15 Elina Svitolina and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka all went on.

Two young American candidates smoked out in the first round, with the Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin from 2020 losing 7-6 (2), 7-5 to Madison Keys and No. 18, Coco Gauff, saving five match points before losing 6 -4, 6- 2 to Wang Qiang.

Olympic champion Belinda Bencic advanced to another round match against Amanda Anisimova.

The men’s Olympic champion Alexander Zverev finished the first program at Rod Laver Arena with a 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (1) victory over Daniel Altmaier and will next play John Millman, who finished 40- year-old Feliciano Lopez’s 79th Grand Slam event in a row in the first round.

No.14 Denis Shapovalov followed up on his victory with Canada in the ATP Cup with a victory of 7-6 (3), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) over Laslo Djere.

Also No.7 Matteo Berrettini, No.10 Hubert Hurkacz, No.16 Cristian Garin, No.17 Gael Monfils and No.23 Reilly Opelka, while No.12 Cameron Norrie lost in equal sets to Sebastian Korda.

Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009 and is the only former champion in the men’s bracket after Djokovic’s late retirement on Sunday. Yesterday, the top-ranked Serb landed in Dubai and then took a flight to Belgrade.

Yesterday, Nadal’s first appearance was by a major since he lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the French Open. He missed Wimbledon due to fatigue, skipped the US Open with a painful left foot, and after recovering from COVID-19, he started 2022 with a title in a tune-up tournament in Melbourne.

“Honestly, these have been very tough moments and there are still doubts,” Nadal said. “But here I am and I can not be happier to be back at this amazing stadium. It’s amazing.”

The 35-year-old Spaniard said Djokovic’s absence would have an impact on the tournament.

“On a personal level, yes, I would like to see him play here,” Nadal said. “Whether it’s fair or not that he plays here is another discussion that I do not want to talk about anymore.”

Djokovic was scheduled to play the final game at Rod Laver against Miomir Kecmanovic. Instead, Salvatore Caruso, who lost in qualifying but became the so-called lucky loser, took the late vacant spot in the draw, taking the field and losing to Kecmanovic 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

Djokovic’s ultimately failed attempt to defend his title involved two court hearings and time in detention at an immigration hotel.

It began when he was granted a dispensation for strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and Tennis Australia to play in the tournament.

This exemption, based on evidence that he recently recovered from COVID-19, allowed him to participate in the tournament. But on arrival, border officials said the exception was not valid and moved to deport him.

Showing proof of vaccination is a requirement for everyone – players, coaches, fans, others – who enter Melbourne Park for the tournament.

A security guard with a loudspeaker reminded people standing in line outside the complex early Monday to have proof of vaccination ready for inspection, adding: “Oh, a ticket would be handy too!”

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