Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka just wants to have fun and who can blame the former world number one, especially after four months on the sidelines.
Osaka returned to competitive action today, making a winning comeback with a welcome first round victory in the Melbourne Summer Set event. The 24-year-old was far from her fiery best, but she showed plenty of fighting spirit to register a 6-4 3-6 6-3 victory over France’s Alize Cornet.
The signs bode well for the reigning Australia Open champion ahead of the defence of her title Down Under, with the Grand Slam tournament set to kick off on Monday 17th January.
"I only really have one major goal this year - I want to feel like every time I step on the court I'm having fun," stressed Osaka.
"I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.
"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 had not played since September when she took an indefinite break from tennis following a disappointing third round defeat at the US Open in New York. And her mental health struggles have been well-documented, especially having refused to take part in any media news conferences at last year’s French Open.
The four-time Grand Slam winner was at pains to protect her mental health, although by refusing to participate in news conferences she fell foul with some sections of the media. Osaka then sensationally pulled out of the event and chose to miss Wimbledon as well, having suffered from depression and anxiety problems.
She famously broke down in tears during a press conference at the Cincinnati Masters a month before temporarily pulling the plug on her blossoming career.
"What probably got me ready again was talking to people," admitted Osaka, who made 57 unforced errors in her comeback win.
"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.
"It was just like an extreme build-up, and you just happened to see it all release last year. I don't really feel the same way. But I'm going into this year a bit more optimistic."
Meanwhile, defending champion Novak Djokovic has revealed he has an "exemption permission" to play at the Australian Open without a Covid-19 vaccination.
The 34-year-old has openly criticised the mandate that all tennis players must be double-jabbed to play in the event, but he has refused to reveal whether he is vaccinated against coronavirus.
"I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition,” penned Djokovic to his 9.6million Instagram fans. Let’s go 2022.
"I've spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I'm heading down under with an exemption permission.”
An Australia Open media statement read: "Novak Djokovic will compete at the Australian Open and is on his way to Australia.
"Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.
"One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines.”
However, former Australian Open doubles champion Jamie Murray has questioned Djokovic’s exemption.
“I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated I wouldn't be getting an exemption,” said Murray.
“But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”
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