MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Naomi Osaka was greeted by some cheers when she walked onto the court, then got significantly louder ones when her work for the day was done.
Maybe the comforts of home helped.
Flashing the level of play that vaulted her to No. 1 in the world not too long ago, Osaka had little trouble in beating Astra Sharma of Australia 6-3, 6-4 on Wednesday — the first full day of play at the Miami Open.
Osaka is Japanese-born, calls California home now, but spent much of her youth in South Florida, basically just a few miles north of where the Miami Open is now held.
“I kind of consider this like my home tournament,” Osaka said, before her words got drowned out by more cheers and applause from fans. “This is the tournament that I loved coming to once a year. I’m just really happy to be back out here.”
It was Osaka’s first match since a March 12 loss at Indian Wells, when she was rattled by a derogatory shout from a spectator. If any similar thoughts were expressed by the fans who were watching Wednesday in a largely empty stadium court built over the field where the NFL’s Miami Dolphins play football, they either were ignored or unnoticed.
“Honestly, for me, I just didn’t want to let anything bother me today no matter what happened,” Osaka said. “The last match that I played was not the greatest memory for me.”
That’s when someone decided to yell from the stands: “We love you.”
Osaka surely appreciated that sentiment.
She revealed Wednesday that she began seeing a therapist after Indian Wells — “it only took like a year after French Open,” she quipped, referring to how she missed the clay-court Grand Slam event to focus on her mental health last year — and that she was bracing to hear heckling.
“I’m glad that I have people around me that told me to go in that direction,” Osaka said. “I was basically just remembering all the things that she told me to do, just to take deep breaths and reset myself when I need to.”
Osaka will face No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany — like Osaka, another former world No. 1 — in the second round Thursday. Kerber, like all 32 seeds in the 96-player singles field, had a bye out of the first round. Kerber is 4-1 head-to-head against Osaka.
Osaka improved to 7-2 this year, not counting a walkover loss at Melbourne in early January when she withdrew from an Australian Open warmup event with an abdominal injury.
She’s ranked No. 77 in the world largely because she hasn’t entered many events in the last year, though among active players — if Ashleigh Barty is no longer considered one after her surprising retirement announcement — Osaka is the most recent to hold the No. 1 ranking. Barty supplanted her in the top spot on Sept. 9, 2019, and has held that ranking since.
Osaka has openly talked about struggling with depression and working on her mental health since winning the 2018 U.S. Open over Serena Williams. She withdrew from last year’s French Open, left last year’s U.S. Open in tears and was brought to tears again by the comment from a spectator at Indian Wells earlier this month.
“I just wanted to prove that I could come back out here and compete,” Osaka said.
Also Wednesday, 2018 Miami champion Sloane Stephens earned a second-round matchup against fellow American Jessica Pegula by topping Hungary’s Panna Udvardy 6-4, 6-3. And Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania topped Hailey Baptiste of the U.S. 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-1 to move into a second-round matchup against women’s No. 1 seed Arnya Sabalenka.
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