Naomi Osaka’s Grand Slam comeback started a little after 9.30pm local time on Monday with a slow and purposeful stroll onto the court at Rod Laver Arena in a technicolor warm-up jacket that demanded attention, just as she always did.
Within two minutes of the start, she had two aces. A minute after that, she was smacking her left thigh with her left hand as she waited to get after the serve of her opponent, Caroline Garcia, just as she always had, especially on this court, where she has won two of her four Grand Slam titles. The woman who, for a time not very long ago, was the heartbeat of her sport, was giving it all once more, the biggest comeback in a tournament filled with them.
This Australian Open, the first week anyway, was always going to be about boldface-name comebacks.
Osaka, back after more than a year of injury, pregnancy and looking after her six-month-old daughter, Shai. Rafael Nadal, whose comeback from hip surgery ended after three tune-up matches and never made it to Melbourne. Angelique Kerber, like Osaka, a former world No 1 and new mother. Caroline Wozniacki, taking the next step after coming out of retirement last summer following more than three years away and giving birth to two kids.
Denis Shapovalov, so recently a young and rising star from Canada, was here, no longer quite so young at 24 and certainly not rising after six months of recovery from a tear in his patellar tendon. Amanda Anisimova of the United States returning after a year of tending to her mental health. Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, the 2021 U.S. Open champion, is back after surgery on two wrists and one ankle. She plays on Tuesday against the American veteran Shelby Rogers, who is not such a well-known name but is coming back after six months on the sidelines with an abdominal injury.
On Day 1, Anisimova showed the promise and power that once made her seem destined for deep runs at a lot of Grand Slams. Wozniacki, the former world No 1, claimed the kind of surehanded win that made it seem like all things were possible.
And then on Day 2 came reminders of just how challenging comebacks can be in this heartless game.
Andy Murray showed they can be cautionary tales, hobbling and wincing through the last games of what may have been his final match at the Australian Open following five frustrating years spent trying to rediscover his former greatness after hip resurfacing surgery.
After a dispiriting and decisive 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 loss to Tomas Martin Etcheverry of Argentina, Murray, another former world No 1, had some words of warning about the emotional toll of a comeback for anyone trying to return from an extended time away from the game, especially the very best.
“It is really hard,” said Murray, who also came back from back surgery earlier in his career. “It’s not usual for players to come back from eight, nine months away from the game, a year away from the game, and start feeling amazing immediately. It does take time.
“For me, this time, it’s never really come back so it’s difficult when you played at the top of the game to change your perspective on how you should be performing and how you should be doing. I would have the highest expectations, and a lot of the players coming back, like Osaka and Wozniacki, Kerber, Rafa… all of them have played right at the top of the game. It’s difficult if you come back and you’re not at that same level.”
There is nothing quite like a comeback in tennis, a game that essentially punishes players for time away.
Ranking points disappear. There is no job protection the way there might be for an athlete in a team sport, with an organization committed to managing a rehabilitation, if only to salvage value from a contract. There are no practice starts without consequences in the minor leagues to ease the transition back to top-tier competition.
For older players, the game, the practice sessions, the matches, they all hurt more.
“I’ve played for so many years, been able to push my body to the brink almost every day for that whole time,” Wozniacki said. “Now I just really have got to be more careful with what I do and how I do things.”
Mostly, there is suffering, through long months of more losses than wins and trying to rediscover touch and timing and the freedom to play once more without worrying if the next shot will end up being the last.
“You see so many guys struggling when they come back,” Shapovalov said on Monday after his loss in straight sets to Jakub Mensik of the Czech Republic, an 18-year-old ranked 142nd in the world.
Shapovalov said he had been through some dark moments over the past months, moments when he felt like he might have played his last tennis match, then finally he began to feel healthy enough to compete toward the end of last year. Now he had come to the Southern Hemisphere and lost two matches out of two.
His friend James Blake, himself a former top 10 player, said it might take eight or nine matches for Shapovalov to begin feeling like himself. Sebastian Korda, the American who is several months into his comeback from a serious wrist injury that he first suffered in the quarter-finals here last year, said on Monday he was still in the process of relearning how to play.
“Every practice you were hesitant and always thinking about it,” Korda said after eking out a five-set win against Vit Kopriva. “There’s still a lot that hasn’t really come back.”
Shapovalov didn’t want to consider that scenario.
“I don’t feel like I’m a guy that strives for mediocre tennis or strives for mediocre results,” he said. “It’s definitely something I consider if I’m not able to get 100 per cent back that I wouldn’t play again.”
Osaka and her coach, Wim Fissette, said in December that they were not concerned about her results in Australia. Osaka began practising in October, only three months after giving birth. These first tournaments would give them information about how far along she had come and how far she needed to go. The goal, Fissette said, is for her to be in top form this summer, during the hard court swing in North America that climaxes with the U.S. Open, a tournament she has won twice.
Now they know she has some way to go, at least to get to the top echelon.
On the way to the court, she tapped her name on the wall that signifies her championships, an old ritual. But in Garcia, Osaka faced the No 16 seed who has been a mainstay of the top 10 for most of the last year and a half, is a big hitter and is not a player anyone would choose to face in their first Grand Slam match in 15 months. For most of the match, she did to Osaka what Osaka used to do to everyone else, taking the initiative, stepping into the court and making them deal with the kind of power and pace that forced players back onto their heels and struggling to get their strings on the ball before it passed them by.
There were moments when Osaka was up to the test, standing on the baseline and matching the power, but not enough, not yet. Comebacks are hard and tennis rarely does sentimentality.
She served 11 aces, but Garcia had 13. She won 78 per cent of the points on her first serve; Garcia won 89 per cent. She lost her serve just once, and faced only three break points; Garcia never lost her serve, and she never faced a break point.
She pushed Garcia to a tiebreaker in the second set, but lost five straight points to end the match, unable to chase down Garcia’s rocketing serves, and her night ended when a backhand clipped the top of the net and didn’t skip over.
Garcia skipped and jumped across the court when it was finished, knowing how well she had needed to play to survive a tough test to start the year’s first Grand Slam.
“She’s been through a lot, I’m just very glad to see her back,” Garcia said of Osaka. “Six months after giving birth she is playing quite amazing.”
Osaka said she was grateful for the past weeks and to have played three tough matches that assured her she could compete with top competition, but a little sad with the results.
“I’m delusional enough to think I could have won the tournament,” she said. That delusion “is what allows me to win tournaments”.
Not this time. Maybe down the road. Comebacks are hard.
(Top photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)