Melbourne | Garcia spoils Osaka return as Jabeur shakes off the rust

The popcorn match of Day 2 saw the return of Naomi Osaka in the night session on Rod Laver Arena when the former World No 1 faced 16th-seeded Caroline Garcia, who proved too powerful and focused for the Japanese.

I heard in the presentation [that] it’s 15 months she’s been away, so she’s been through a lot, and I’m very glad to see her back. I hope she can enjoy her tennis now, and have fun out there. Six months after giving birth she’s playing quite amazing already. Caroline Garcia

Osaka is a 4-time Grand Slam winner, who is making her return to the tour just 6 months after becoming a mother, and received a heart-warming welcome back from the crowd gathered on Laver.

Garcia, however, was determined to spoil the party and produced too much quality for the 2-time Australian Open champion, who bowed out 6-4 7-6(2) after an hour and 26 minutes.

The 30-year old Frenchwoman’s serve was particularly potent on this occasion, and she dominated behind it, striking 34 winners, including 13 aces, and dropping just 4 points behind her first delivery all night.

“I can’t remember everything,” Garcia joked. “I was so anxious I was just trying to breathe, you know?

“I knew I would have to be very solid against Naomi, and to bring some balls back and be as aggressive as I could, every time I had chances.

“Obviously I had a lot of pressure on my serve – she was really trying to put pressure on my second serve, but I managed to stay solid, and to be a little more aggressive at the end.

“I heard in the presentation [that] it’s 15 months she’s been away, so she’s been through a lot, and I’m very glad to see her back.

“I hope she can enjoy her tennis now, and have fun out there. Six months after giving birth she’s playing quite amazing already.”

Caroline Garcia needed 2 tight sets to get past 2-times Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka on her return to Melbourne Park on Monday night

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Osaka gave birth to daughter Shai in July last year, and returned from maternity leave a fortnight ago in Brisbane, falling to Karolina Pliskova in the 2nd-round.

She had defeated Garcia 6-2 6-3 in the 2nd-round of the 2021 Australian Open en route to her second title in Melbourne Park, but the Frenchwoman delivered a superb serving massterclass to reverse that result.

Garcia broke Osaka once in the opening set, and played a perfect tiebreak in the second to seal the win.

Her serve started strongly, and never wavered, while the quality of the ball-striking on show was inspiring.

The opening 4 games featured only 2 points against serve, and the first pivotal moment came at 2-2 when Osaka double-faulted at deuce to present Garcia with a chance to break, and the Frenchwoman converted when the 26-year old Japanese wild-card missed a forehand into the net.

Although Garcia continued to press to create another 2 break points for a 5-2 lead, Osaka held firm and kept the scoreline close, forcing the 16th seed to play some of her best tennis when she served for the set at 5-4.

She wrapped up the game in some style, though, from 15-30, with a superb forehand winner, an ace, and another un-returnable first serve.

The first 12 games of the second didn’t feature a single break point, and it was Garcia who made the first move in the breaker, ripping a forehand winner to secure the first mini break and a 3-2 lead, before piling on the pressure from there.

That 3-2 advantage quickly become 5-2 with two strong service points, and another forehand winner earned her 4 match points at 6-2.

Moments later she was celebrating surviving one of the toughest possible 1st-round assignments, tallying 13 aces to Osaka’s 11, and 34 winners to her opponent’s 20, while she also committed fewer unforced errors, 24 to Osaka’s 25, and won 7 out of 9 points at the net.

Garcia, who won the WTA Finals title at the end of 2022, has never gone beyond the fourth round in Melbourne.

The former World No 4 next will face Magdalena Frech for the first time after the 69th-ranked Pole won the longest women’s match of the tournament so far, quelling wild-card Daria Saville, 6-7(5) 6-3 7-5, in 3 hours and 13 minutes.

Ons Jabeur shook off the rust and beat Yuliia Starodubtseva in straight sets on Monday afternoon

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Earlier, Ons Jabeur, the 6th seed from Tunisia, got off to a winning start defeating Ukrainian qualifier Yuliia Starodubtseva, 6-3 6-1, in her first match since the WTA Finals in Cancun last autumn.

“The season is very long,” Jabeur said, so I was, like, ‘OK, maybe it’s better that I take my time, rest, take my time also to do a good preseason’.

“Given what happened last year, I didn’t want to take the risk and just come back and play a lot of tournaments.”

The only Top 10 player in the main draw to opt out of playing any official tournaments before coming to Melbourne after struggling with injuries, Jabeur showed some understandable signs of rust, striking a double-fault to hand over an early break in the first game.

The Tunisian responded perfectly to win 4 consecutive games to build an insurmountable 4-1 lead before closing out the opening set in 37 minutes.

23-year old Starodubtseva, ranked 150, successfully navigated qualifying to earn a spot in her first Grand Slam main draw.

Where Jabeur showed her class was in her return games, and she broke Starodubtseva 6 times, limiting her to just 41% of first-serves won, and 45% of second-serve points won.

Starodubtseva could not find a way through Jabeur from the baseline either, hitting just 5 winners to 35 unforced errors.

Jabeur finished the match with a touch of class, earning her first match point with a perfectly feathered drop-shot return winner that landed plum on the net cord and trickled over the net, before closing out the 67-minute victory one point later, striking her 15th winner to seal the win.

She set up a first-time meeting with 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva from Russia, who has cited Jabeur as one of her idols.

Given her lack of matches, Jabeur is tempering her expectations in Melbourne, where she was a quarter-finalist in 2020.

“I just didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself,” Jabeur said. “If I put, maybe, enough pressure on two Grand Slams [Roland Garros and Wimbledon], I say, it’s OK, and be more realistic to say I’m just going to go and enjoy myself on the court [at the other two].

“I have enough pressure on my plate, so I think it’s just good to enjoy my time here.”

The youngest player in the Top 100, Andreeva came through a tight opening set to defeat American Bernarda Pera, 7-5 6-1, in the 1st-round.

“It’s going to be a very difficult match,” Jabeur said. “I know she’s 16 years old, but she’s very tough. I might be her idol, but she wants to go there and kick my [butt], for sure.

“But it’s an honour to play her, really. I’m a big fan of her and love her attitude on the court.”

Beatriz Haddad Maia needed 3 sets to see off 18-year old Linda Fruhvirtova on Monday at the Australia Open

© Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images

In other late results on Monday, Beatriz Haddad Maia, the 10th seed from Brazil, saw off a challenge from 18-year old Linda Fruhvirtova from the Czech Republic, 6-2 2-6 6-2; while Swiss Viktorija Golubic upset Veronika Kudermetova, the 15th seed from Russia, 7-6(4) 1-6 6-1; Poland’s Magdalena Frech outlasted Aussie wild-card Daria Saville, 6-7(5) 6-3 7-5 after 3 hours 13 minutes; Arantxa Rus from the Netherlands ousted Anhelina Kalinina, the No 24 seed from Ukraine, 6-1 6-0; Elise Mertens, the 25th seed from Belgium, advanced after Egypt’s Mayar Sherif retired at 6-2, 2-0; and Spain’s Paula Badosa dispatched American Taylor Townsend, 6-1 6-3 in 57 minutes.

Paula Badosa made a successful return after a back injury, beating Taylor Townsend in 2 sets after 59 minutes

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