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9 Jan, 2022 15:23

Tennis ace Osaka blames ‘shock’ after ditching date with Russian star

The defending Australian Open champ has withdrawn from her first tournament since taking a break from tennis
Tennis ace Osaka blames ‘shock’ after ditching date with Russian star

Naomi Osaka called off her semifinal showdown with Russian rival Veronika Kudermetova at a WTA warm-up for the Australian Open, pulling out of her first competition after a four-month exile from tennis.

Former world number one Osaka is currently on the comeback trail after taking a much-publicized break from the sport over mental health issues.

Following her controversial decision to quit the French Open in June 2021, the Japanese superstar's defense of her US Open title ended in shock three months later when she was beaten in the third round by unheralded eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez.

Osaka recorded her first win of 2022 at the preparation competition for the 2022 Australian Open, extending her impressive winning streak in Melbourne to 13 matches as she booked a final four date with Russian world number 31 Kudermetova – only to announce her latest premature departure.

"Sad to withdraw due to injury from my match today," Osaka told her millions of social media followers.

"My body got a shock from playing back-to-back intense matches after the break I took. I’ll try to rest up and I’ll see you soon."

In a statement ahead of the Grand Slam, which starts on January 17 and has been mired in controversy around men's number one Novak Djokovic's visa issues, Osaka added: "I had a lot of fun playing here in Melbourne.

"Unfortunately, I have an abdominal injury which I need to rest and prepare for the Australian Open."

Osaka's withdrawal paved the way for 24-year-old Kudermetova to advance to the final in pursuit of the second title of her career.

The Moscow-born Wimbledon doubles finalist was beaten 6-2, 6-3 by two-time Grand Slam title winner Simona Halep on Sunday.

Elsewhere at the Rod Laver Arena, Amanda Anisimova – an American who is the daughter of Russian emigrants – lifted the trophy in a parallel warm-up tournament by beating Belarus' Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-5, 1-6, 6-4.

Vogue magazine cover star Osaka has emphasized she just wants to "have fun" after regaining her "feeling of love for tennis".

"I only really have one major goal this year and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that," she explained to reporters from Melbourne.

"I want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.

"I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that. And 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."

At the height of her apprent turmoil in 2021, Osaka suggested that she would not be competing again for an indefinite period.

"What probably got me ready again was talking to people," explained the 24-year-old.

"During the off-season I just hung out with my friends and talked to my family a lot. I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself.

"Then I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game.

"It’s not like it 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.

"It was just like an extreme build-up, and you just happened to see it all released last year. I don’t really feel the same way. But I’m going into this year a bit more optimistic."

Osaka will be defending her title at the first Grand Slam of the year, having also won the tournament in 2019.