Osaka cruises to first-round win at Miami Open

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Naomi Osaka was greeted by some cheers when she walked onto the court, then got significantly louder ones when her work for the day was done.

Maybe the comforts of home helped.

Flashing the level of play that vaulted her to No. 1 in the world not too long ago, Osaka had little trouble in defeating Astra Sharma of Australia 6-3, 6-4 on Wednesday — the first full day of play at the Miami Open.

Osaka is Japanese-born, calls California home now, but spent much of her youth in South Florida, basically just a few miles north of where the Miami Open is now held.

“I kind of consider this like my home tournament,” Osaka said, before her words got drowned out by more cheers and applause from fans. “This is the tournament that I loved coming to once a year. I’m just really happy to be back out here.”

It was Osaka’s first match since a March 12 loss at Indian Wells, where she was rattled by a derogatory shout from a spectator. If any similar thoughts were expressed by the fans who were watching Wednesday in a largely empty stadium court built over the field where the NFL’s Miami Dolphins play football, they either were ignored or unnoticed.

“Honestly, for me, I just didn’t want to let anything bother me today no matter what happened,” Osaka said. “The last match that I played was not the greatest memory for me.”

That’s when someone decided to yell from the stands: “We love you!”

Osaka surely appreciated that sentiment.

Osaka will next face No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany — like Osaka, another former world No. 1 — in the second round. Kerber, like all 32 seeds in the 96-player singles field, had a bye out of the first round. Kerber is 4-1 head-to-head against Osaka.

Osaka improved to 7-2 this year, not counting a walkover loss at Melbourne in early January when she withdrew from an Australian Open warm-up event with an abdominal injury.

She’s ranked No. 77 in the world largely because she hasn’t entered many events in the past year, though among active players — if Ashleigh Barty is no longer considered one after her surprising retirement announcement — Osaka is the most recent to hold the No. 1 ranking. Barty supplanted her in the top spot on Sept. 9, 2019, and has held that ranking since.

Osaka has openly talked about struggling with depression and working on her mental health since winning the 2018 US Open over Serena Williams. She withdrew from last year’s French Open to tend to her mental health, left last year’s US Open in tears and was brought to tears again by the comment from a spectator at Indian Wells earlier this month.

“I just wanted to prove that I could come back out here and compete,” Osaka said.

Sharma entered ranked 96th in the world and fell to 3-8 in singles matches this year, with two of those wins coming in qualifying rounds.

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