Naomi Osaka Returns to Elite Tennis from a Maternity Break and Wins Her First Match in Brisbane

Naomi Osaka plays a shot in her match against Tamara Korpatsch of Germany during the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane, Australia, on Monday.

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Naomi Osaka’s first win at the elite level since becoming a mother didn’t come easily. It did come on Day 1 of the year, though. So that was two items Osaka checked off the list Monday for her comeback to professional tennis.

The four-time major winner was broken while serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set and needed three match points in the tiebreaker before converting a 6-3, 7-6 (9) victory over Tamara Korpatsch in the first round of the Brisbane International.

A two-time Australian and U.S. Open champion, Osaka pulled out of last year’s Australian Open in Melbourne before later revealing she was pregnant. The U.S.-based Japanese player and her partner, rapper Cordae, became parents to daughter Shai in Los Angeles in July.

I was super nervous the whole time, the former No. 1-ranked Osaka, 26, said of her comeback match. “A part of me felt like Shai was watching me. I wanted to do my best for her.

While I’m playing, I’m aware of it in the sense that I want to be a good role model for my daughter. Other than that I think I’m pretty much trying to be the same old me.

Osaka had only played one match since her first-round exit at the 2022 U.S. Open. She was leading Daria Gavrilova at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo in September of that year before the Australian retired from the match with injury.

The time out and motherhood has given Osaka a renewed focus on living in the moment.

The last couple years that I played before I had my daughter, I didn’t return as much love as I was given, she told the crowd at Pat Rafter Arena. “So I really feel like that’s what I want to do in this chapter.

I just really appreciate people coming out and people knowing me and cheering for me. And, of course, she’s paying more attention to the younger people in the crowd. I guess like towards the end when I was signing autographs, I was more aware of kids,”” she told a post-match news conference. “”I see them differently now because now I’m a mom, too, and I can picture Shai being that age.””

Osaka will play a fellow former No. 1, three-time Brisbane International champion Karolina Pliskova, in the second round.

Persistent rain meant matches on outside courts were suspended, confining matches to the covered main stadium.

In the men’s draw, third-seeded Ben Shelton, the 21-year-old American who reached the U.S. Open semifinals last year, was beaten 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3 by Roman Safiullin. The 26-year-old Safiullin is ranked 39th but had wins over Carlos Alcaraz and Alexander Zverev last year.

The Brisbane International is one of the key tune-up events for the Australian Open which begins Jan. 14 in Melbourne.