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Naomi Osaka has found her joy in tennis in time for the Australian Open

Naomi Osaka will defend her Australian Open title in Melbourne. (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
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Naomi Osaka’s previous Grand Slam appearance ended with a loss to an unseeded teen in the U.S. Open’s third round, and she trudged off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium with her head bowed.

In tears afterward, Osaka confessed that she felt only relief in victory and extreme sadness in defeat — signs, she said, that she needed to take a break.

Four months later, Osaka, 24, is scheduled to return to Grand Slam competition as the two-time and defending champion of the Australian Open, which gets underway Monday in Melbourne. The former world No. 1 will open play with a new mind-set, she recently explained, and reframed ambition.

“I only really have one major goal this year, and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that,” Osaka said Jan. 4 after her first match in four months, a victory in a hard-court tuneup at Melbourne Park. “For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m either — not that I’m either, but I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that, even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.”

Osaka proclaimed herself rested and pleased to be back, having put her three-sets loss to eventual U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez behind her. But she suffered an abdominal injury two rounds later and withdrew from the tuneup event to give herself a chance to recover for the Australian Open.

Players to watch at the Australian Open beyond Novak Djokovic

It’s a tournament she loves for two reasons, she said: the warmth of the people and the heat of the climate.

“Whenever I come here, literally every person that I encounter is so friendly and so nice,” Osaka said. As for the sweltering temperatures, Osaka said she loved competing in conditions she likened to “suffering” because she knew her opponents were suffering, too.

Osaka’s well-being — the state of her game and the state of her passion for the game — is among the more compelling story lines of this year’s Australian Open now that a three-judge panel resolved the politically charged controversy over the eligibility of nine-time and defending champion Novak Djokovic to compete as an unvaccinated player.

Djokovic lost his last-ditch effort to remain in the country to compete for a men’s record 21st major title when the judges unanimously upheld the decision of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to revoke his visa.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic lost his last-ditch court bid to stay in Australia after the federal court upheld the decision to cancel his visa on Jan. 16. (Video: Federal Court of Australia via Storyful)

The decision was announced at shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday, local time, less than 18 hours before the Australian Open was set to get under way at Melbourne Park.

Djokovic, 34, expressed extreme disappointment over the decision in a brief statement afterward, as he prepared to leave the country under deportation orders.

But he added that he respected the ruling, would cooperate with authorities in leaving the country, and wished players, tournament officials and fans “all the best for the tournament.”

"I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” Djokovic stated.

Djokovic could have avoided the controversy had he gotten vaccinated against the coronavirus, as Australian Open officials required of all players and officials unless they showed proof of a valid medical contraindication.

It is difficult to recall a more contentious run-up to what’s billed as “the Happy Slam,” with Djokovic’s supporters pepper-sprayed in the streets, his parents claiming political persecution and fellow players increasingly resentful of his refusal to follow the rules.

But there is a chance that Monday’s start of play restores harmony to Melbourne Park.

Though Osaka’s ranking slipped to 14th during her hiatus, she will bring imposing credentials to Rod Laver Arena, having won four hard-court majors over the past four seasons.

“Any time you can show up at a place where you’ve won a couple times before” — Osaka won the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021 — “on a surface that’s your number one surface by miles, she has to be talked about as a contender in this era of women’s tennis,” said 22-time Grand Slam doubles champion Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst.

So, too, is Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, the top-ranked woman, who, like Osaka, took a hiatus earlier in her career to reclaim the love she had had for tennis as a child. Barty, a two-time Grand Slam champion, is drawn to face Osaka in the round of 16.

Novak Djokovic’s legacy, bid for 21st Grand Slam are dealt another setback

For Osaka, restoring her joy in tennis began, she explained during a news conference this month, with analyzing herself.

“I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that,” Osaka told reporters at the Melbourne tuneup. “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.”

Opening up to others was a key, she said.

“I tend to internalize everything, and I think that might be just based on how I grew up,” Osaka said. “I didn't really have that many friends, so I didn't really talk to anyone in the first place.”

During her break from the tour, Osaka discovered the simple pleasure of hanging out with friends and family — something others may take for granted but a luxury that few champions feel they can justify.

“That was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself,” Osaka said. “Then I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game. It’s not like [the love] 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 3 years old, and I never really took a break.”

The open question, as Osaka opens defense of her title, is whether the abdominal injury will affect her serve, the best in the women’s game along with that of Serena Williams, who is not competing.

On the men’s side, tennis history may be made even without Djokovic in the field.

Like Osaka, 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, 35, only returned to competition this month after an extended break — in his case, to address a chronic foot injury that ultimately required surgery.

To gauge his tournament-toughness after not competing since an Aug. 6 loss to 50th-ranked Lloyd Harris at Washington’s Citi Open, Nadal entered a hard-court event in Australia this month and won it.

Novak Djokovic fought the public good — and won. That’s bad news for all of us.

But it’s a huge leap from a tuneup in which he faced no one ranked higher than 65th to the Australian Open.

The men’s field is stocked with big-hitting 20-somethings weary of being understudies to Djokovic and Nadal, who have won 12 of the past 14 Grand Slam titles. Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champion; Alexander Zverev, a 2020 U.S. Open finalist; and 2021 French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas could contend for the title.

A fourth Grand Slam title is probably beyond the reach of Andy Murray, who, at 34, is operating on a metal hip. But Murray is reveling in an improbable career resurgence, reaching the final of a hard-court tuneup this week, three years after a four-hour, five-sets Australian Open loss that seemed to signal the end.

As the scoreboard displayed a farewell video that night, Murray told the crowd, which rose to its feet: “If it was my last match, it was an amazing way to end. I literally gave everything I had.”

Now ranked 135th, Murray has never lost his love of tennis. He needed a wild card to qualify for the 128-player field, but he will no doubt make the most of it.

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