Naomi Osaka Wins at Wimbledon for the First Time in 6 Years, and Coco Gauff Moves On, Too

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Naomi Osaka of Japan plays a backhand return to Diane Parry of France during their first round match of the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, July 1, 2024.

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Naomi Osaka had not won a match at Wimbledon in six years. Hadn’t even played there in five. Grass courts never were her favorite surface.

Twelve months ago at this time, Osaka was off the tour while becoming a mother — her daughter, Shai, turns 1 on Tuesday — and recalls flipping on the TV in the hospital and seeing a certain Grand Slam event on the screen.

I’m just really excited to be here, Osaka said Monday after pulling out a 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 victory over Diane Parry in the first round at the All England Club by taking the last two games from 4-all in the third set. “It’s funny, because Wimbledon was the first tournament I watched after pregnancy.”

On a day when there was plenty of focus away from the courts and instead on the health and status of various players who have been ranked No. 1 and won multiple major championships — tournament favorite Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka, each a two-time Australian Open winner dealing with a bum shoulder, withdrew hours before they were due on court; Andy Murray, twice a titlist at Wimbledon, was trying to decide whether to compete less than 10 days after surgery to remove a cyst from his spinal cord — another person fitting that description, Osaka, was making a happy return.

She’s won the U.S. Open and Australian Open twice apiece on hard courts, but never has been past the third round on either Wimbledon’s grass or the French Open’s clay. Osaka had not entered Wimbledon since a first-round loss in 2019, and while she’s topped the WTA in the past, she is now No. 113 in the rankings after being off the tour for 15 months until returning in January.

Before facing the 53rd-ranked Parry, Osaka said, she was sifting through pictures on her phone.

They have that feature, ‘This time last year.’ I was looking at that. I was looking at photos of myself in the hospital. It’s really cool to be here now, Osaka said. “My mindset last year was just trying to survive. Honestly, I didn’t really know what was going on after I gave birth; just trying to piece myself back together.”

Other big names who won on Day 1 at Wimbledon included reigning U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff, 2021 U.S. Open winner Emma Raducanu and three-time major champion Carlos Alcaraz, all on Centre Court. Alcaraz began his title defense feeling a bit jittery, he said afterward, but came through with a 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-2 victory over Estonian qualifier Mark Lajal.

I still get nerves when I am playing here, said Alcaraz, who won the French Open last month to become, at 21, the youngest man with a major trophy on three surfaces. “I practiced 45 minutes on Thursday, and it’s the first time that I was nervous in a practice — just because I’m playing here.”

Lajal (pronounced la-YAHL), who’s a week younger, was making his Grand Slam debut and felt it to his core, too.

Two days before, I felt like I was going to throw up, I was so stressed, said Lajal, who actually went up a break in each of the first two sets. “When I found out who I was playing, and where I was playing, I was super excited. But as it sunk in — what I would be doing and who I was going to be playing — I was stressed about playing in front of such a huge crowd on one of the biggest stages in tennis.”

A year after a first-round exit at Wimbledon, Gauff eliminated Caroline Dolehide 6-1, 6-2. Raducanu was a 7-6 (0), 6-3 winner against Renata Zarazua, a late replacement when No. 22 Ekaterina Alexandrova pulled out because of an unspecified illness.

Thinking back to her 2023 loss to 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, Gauff said: “It was a very tough moment for me. I’m a little bit emotional.”

But the All England Club also brings back good memories for the 20-year-old American, whose initial Slam appearance came after becoming the event’s youngest qualifier at 15 in 2019.

Wimbledon is the place — I wouldn’t say where the dream started, Gauff said, “but maybe where I believed the dream was possible.”

From a tennis perspective, Osaka had a real breakthrough at Roland Garros in May — although the end result was a loss.

Osaka pushed current No. 1 Iga Swiatek to the brink in Paris, leading 5-2 in the third set, serving for the victory at 5-3, even standing one point from victory, before the eventual tournament champion managed to eke out a 7-6 (1), 1-6, 7-5 second-round win. That was the only set Swiatek lost in what would become an otherwise dominant run to her fourth French Open trophy in five years.

I, personally, was absolutely gutted, to be honest, because I thought she was going to win. … But I was also happy for her and proud of her. And she was extremely upbeat, said Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s agent. “I don’t think she took it as a match where, ‘I had a match point.’ She took it more as she got some belief back that she can beat the top players.”

Osaka called Monday’s match against Parry “a little up-and-down” and “really fun and really stressful at the same time.” She had more than twice as many winners as Parry, 34 to 14, but also twice as many unforced errors, 38 to 19.

Still, Osaka considers herself a work-in-progress and some of that entails allowing herself to make mistakes, to cede a game here and there, and not be too bothered.

I know that I didn’t play bad. I think I just put too much pressure on myself that I need to win all the games — that I can’t be broken and things like that, she said. “When that eventually happened, I felt like I doubted myself, even though I knew my game plan going in. So that’s kind of what I just did in the third set.”