Tennis: Rusty Osaka sees off Cornet in error-strewn return

Naomi Osaka advanced to the second round of the Melbourne Summer Set tournament with a win over Alize Cornet. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka was rusty on her return to action for the first time in four months on Tuesday (Jan 4) but still advanced to the second round of the Melbourne Summer Set tournament with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Alize Cornet.

Osaka, who last played competitively when she lost to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the US Open in September, displayed plenty of her trademark power but often lacked accuracy at the Australian Open warm-up event.

The Japanese player struggled with her first serve while committing 57 unforced errors, including eight double faults, as she eventually saw off the former world No. 11.

"I feel like I probably made a lot of unforced errors today but I kind of expected that because it is the first match," said Osaka.

"I was really nervous so I'm just glad that I was able to hold my serve on the last game."

The match was the first since Osaka announced she was taking an indefinite break from tennis following her loss to Fernandez at Flushing Meadows.

That decision brought an end to a season that had also seen her withdraw from the French Open citing mental health issues and miss Wimbledon during a mid-season hiatus.

Playing on the same Rod Laver Arena court where she has won two Australian Open titles, the former world No. 1 looked relaxed in the opening set in front of a small crowd.

"I really love playing here," said Osaka.

"I love New York, but this might be my favourite Slam so it feels really good to always be back here. It feels really nice to play in front of people."

The 24-year-old squandered three break points in the fifth game but made amends two games later to take the opener.

After an early break in the second set, Osaka looked to be heading for a comfortable win but the loss of four consecutive games saw Cornet pull level.

Osaka, who is ranked No. 13 in the world, regained her poise early in the third set, winning the first three games before closing out the match.

Following her loss, Cornet took the opportunity to express her concern for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in her post-match interview.

Peng's well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community and rights groups when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past.

The Women's Tennis Association suspended tournaments in China due to concerns over her safety and said her public appearances did not address or alleviate concerns about the former doubles world No. 1's safety.

Peng then said last month she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.

Zhang has not commented on the matter.

"I'm still a little bit worried about her," Cornet said.

"I have to say that this situation still makes me feel uncomfortable, and I don't know how she's doing. I really don't know what to think about it anymore. I don't know where is the truth and where are the lies."

Cornet was one of the first players to show her support for Peng under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai and a host of current and former players, including Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, joined the calls seeking to confirm she was safe.

"I'm really happy that all these people followed me and the turn it took was really unexpected, like the reaction of (WTA chief executive) Steve Simon and everything that followed was really, really huge," said Cornet.

"I'm not sure that it changes something (for Peng). It's tough to know what the effect was on her situation. It's not very clear... I'm just hoping for the best and hoping that she's fine. I feel I don't have the power to do something more."

In the men's ATP 250 event at the same venue, former world No. 1 Andy Murray suffered a setback in his preparation for the Australian Open as Argentinian Facundo Bagnis overcame the Briton 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 in the round of 32.

"To beat him is amazing, I'm really happy. I enjoyed every point in the match," world No. 76 Bagnis said.

Five-time Australian Open finalist Murray, down at 134th in the world rankings after layoffs due to hip surgery, has accepted a wild card to the main draw of the year's first Major, which begins on Jan 17.

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