Naomi Osaka marked her return to tennis with a hard-fought win in Melbourne and declared her love for competing had been reignited during a break from the sport.

The former world number one beat French player Alize Cornet 6-4 3-6 6-3 on Tuesday, in her first match since a third-round US Open defeat to eventual runner-up Leylah Fernandez.

The Japanese star said after that Flushing Meadows loss in September that she would put her tennis career on hold indefinitely.

Across several months, Osaka has adjusted her personal and professional priorities, pointing to the joy of San Francisco sleepovers with friends and reconnecting with normal life.

She believes there is a way to focus on the joy of competing, rather than the strains of performing in the public eye that caused her so much consternation last season, and there were glimpses of Osaka's best in the win over world number 61 Cornet at the WTA 250 Melbourne Summer Set 1 tournament.

Osaka pulled out of the 2021 French Open after one match and then elected not to play Wimbledon, as she addressed the importance of protecting her mental health.

She was reluctant to take part in media conferences, finding them harrowing at times, but on Tuesday the 24-year-old embraced the stage and explained how she had surprised herself by coming back to the court so soon.

"I actually really thought I wasn't going to play for most of this year," Osaka said. "I'm really happy with myself that I love the sport that much because I literally said that I was unsure when I was going to play after the US Open and I'm here right now.

"In the break I was feeling like I didn't know what my future was going to be. I'm pretty sure a lot of people can relate to that. Of course, you never know what the future holds, but it was definitely an indecisive time. But I'm really happy to be sitting here right now."

 

Osaka had envisaged a spell of globe-trotting – without a tennis racquet in her luggage – but the pandemic left her wary of following that route.

In the end, she settled on enjoying a quiet life for a while, saying: "I kind of stayed at home. My friends live near San Francisco, so I was driving to go see them and stay over at their house and bother them quite a few times.

"I feel like that's also an experience that I haven't been able to have in my life, just based on the fact that I play tennis and I travel a lot and I haven't been able to have sleepovers and stuff like that. It was cool to be able to do that."

Osaka said she has just "one major goal for 2022".

"For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I'm having fun," she said. "I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could. Also, I have a goal in the press room, that I'm never going to cry again, so hopefully that works out in my favour.

"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."

Quoted on the WTA website, Osaka said opening up to others about the tribulations of life on the circuit helped her to adjust her goals.

"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," she said. "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. Sometimes it's just good to remember why you're playing and stuff."

Top seed Osaka's win came on Rod Laver Arena, the main show court at the Melbourne Park complex that will stage the Australian Open later this month, when Osaka will be defending her title. Fellow seeds Liudmila Samsonova, Bernarda Pera and Alison Riske were beaten.

At the concurrent Melbourne Summer Set 2 event, American top seed Jessica Pegula was ousted in the first round by Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu, losing 7-6 (8-6) 6-3.

The Adelaide International 1 event contains the strongest field this week, and Tuesday saw straight-sets wins for Coco Gauff and a pair of 2020 grand slam winners in Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin.

Eighth seed Elina Svitolina had a bad day though, the Ukrainian losing 5-7 6-4 6-3 to Russia's world number 130 Anastasia Gasanova.

Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of next month's Australian Open and is experiencing "severe" symptoms.

World number 23 Bencic returned a positive test, along with Ons Jabeur, after competing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

The pair are the third and fourth players to have tested positive after travelling to the Abu Dhabi event, following 2021 US Open winner Emma Raducanu and 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal.

Bencic wrote on Twitter: "Unfortunately and even though I am fully vaccinated, I recently tested positive for Covid-19.

"I am currently isolating and taking all precautionary [measures] to get through this as best as possible as I am experiencing quite severe symptoms (fever, aches, chills)."

The Mubadala World Tennis Championship typically serves as a warm-up event prior to the Australian Open which is due to begin on January 17 in Melbourne.

World number 10 Jabeur, who defeated Bencic in Abu Dhabi, is experiencing "strong symptoms" and isolating in her native Tunisia.

Peng Shuai denied making an accusation of sexual assault against a Chinese government official, amid ongoing concerns for her wellbeing.

Peng has been widely considered as missing since making sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, the ex-vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee.

The two-time doubles grand slam winner posted the allegations on social media site Weibo, though her post has since been removed.

But she now claims there had been "a lot of misunderstandings" about the post.

In a video interview posted by Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, Peng said: "First, I need to stress one point that is extremely important, I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me, I have to clearly stress this point."

Peng, who seemed surprised by the interview's questions, also said: "Why would anyone monitor? [I have] always been very free."

Peng was speaking at a sporting event in Shanghai in what was the first time she has addressed the alleged incident publicly on camera.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had twice spoken to Peng before and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) welcomed the IOC's pictures, which showed the 35-year-old speaking to IOC president Thomas Back via a video call, but suspended its upcoming tournaments in China owing to its ongoing concerns.

That decision came after WTA chairman Steve Simon said he struggled to believe Peng had sent him an email that claimed the sexual assault allegations were false and that she was safely at home.

Peng, however, said she had written the email in Chinese herself, and that the English translation of the message to Simon published by Chinese state media was accurate.

World number four Karolina Pliskova has withdrawn from the upcoming Australian Open, succumbing to a hand injury.

Pliskova – a two-time grand slam runner-up and 2019 Australian Open semi-finalist – hurt her hand in a practice session.

The 16-time WTA Tour champion will miss the main draw of the year's opening slam event, which gets underway on January 17, for the first time since failing to progress beyond qualifying in 2012.

"Unfortunately I hurt my right hand in practice yesterday and I won't be able to play in Adelaide, Sydney and Australian Open this year," Czech star Pliskova said.

"I am sad not being able to start my season in Australia and I will miss my Australian fans very much."

Australian Open officials also confirmed Pliskova's absence on Thursday.

"You will be missed, @KaPliskova. Wishing you a speedy recovery," the Australian Open wrote via social media.

Pliskova lost in the Australian Open third round at Melbourne Park earlier this year before falling at the second hurdle at the French Open.

The 29-year-old then reached the Wimbledon decider, trumped by world number one Ash Barty, followed by a quarter-final appearance at the US Open.

US Open champion Emma Raducanu will miss this week's Mubadala World Tennis Championship after testing positive for coronavirus.

The 19-year-old had been due to take on Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Belinda Bencic in the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.

However, Raducanu announced on Monday that she will not be able to take part in the tournament as she is now self-isolating. 

"I was very much looking forward to playing in front of the fans here in Abu Dhabi, but unfortunately after testing positive for Covid-19, I will have to postpone until the next opportunity," Raducanu said.

"I'm isolating as per rules and hopefully will be able to get back on court soon."

Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a grand slam title with victory at Flushing Meadows in September, but she has won just two of her five matches since then.

The British teenager, who recently appointed Torben Beltz as her new coach after parting company with Andrew Richardson, will next be in action at the Melbourne Summer Set early in the new year as preparation for the Australian Open.

World number one Ash Barty will start her 2022 season at the Adelaide International along with eight of the other current 10 top players in the world.

Barty has held top spot in the women's rankings since September 2019 and collected five titles – including Wimbledon – in the 2021 season but missed the French Open with a hip injury.

She also opted to not play in the season-ending WTA Finals in Mexico due to coronavirus-enforced quarantine concerns that could disrupt her preparation for the following campaign.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) confirmed on Friday that Barty would begin her 2022 season in Adelaide on January 2, along with defending champion Iga Swiatek, WTA Finals victor Garbine Muguruza and Roland Garros winner Barbora Krejcikova, as the world's elite players prepare for the Australian Open.

The entry list for the WTA 500 tournaments also includes Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Barbara Bencic, who finished runner-up to Swiatek in 2021, former world number one Karolina Pliskova and US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez.

The field boasts 12 major trophies between them, but three grand slam winners will kick-start their seasons in Melbourne the day after.

Naomi Osaka, who is aiming to defend her title at the Australian Open, gets her preparations underway in the Melbourne Summer Set.

Two-time major winner Simona Halep and reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu will play in the Melbourne Summer Set.

The trio are among 20 of the top 50 ranked players in the world for the two WTA 250 tournaments starting on January 3, with the entry list split between the competitions the week before matches start.

Raducanu will feature in just her eighth Tour-level event, and her fourth tournament since winning her first major, while Osaka will be appearing for the first time since an early defeat in the third round of the US Open to Fernandez.

Amelie Mauresmo has become the first woman to be appointed tournament director at the French Open, promising to show "fierce ambition" in the role.

Former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Mauresmo succeeds fellow former tour professional Guy Forget in the top job at Roland Garros.

Mauresmo enjoyed 39 weeks at number one in the world at the height of her career but struggled to stamp a mark at her home grand slam. She captured the junior title in 1996 but appearances in the 2003 and 2004 quarter-finals were her best performances as a professional.

The 42-year-old aspires to make a greater impact on the Paris tournament during her time in charge, having been appointed to serve until 2024.

She steps into the role after spending several years working successfully as a coach, having helped players including Marion Bartoli, Andy Murray and Lucas Pouille. She and Pouille parted company in October of last year.

Mauresmo said she was "very proud" and explained: "This tournament created a vocation within me. I started dreaming about tennis thanks to Roland Garros! At age four, I sat in front of the television and decided I wanted to become a tennis player, thanks to 'Roland'.

"I stayed here in the National Training Centre when I was younger, I played in the grounds. It was my playground! This site is still very dear to me, even though the stadium has changed a lot. I qualified at age 15, I won the junior tournament.

"My career here featured many ups and downs, in part due to all those emotions I experienced when I was younger. And, after my career, I saw a different side to the event. I have coached various players, been a television pundit, a spectator and a television viewer, too. I don't know if anyone has seen the tournament from more angles than I have.

"This gives me a certain responsibility and a fierce ambition to push Roland Garros even further. The event is already fantastic, extraordinary. We are going to try and make it even better!"

Mauresmo, who retired from playing in 2009, has also served as France's Fed Cup captain.

Tennis great Billie Jean King sent a message of congratulations, and French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu welcomed the appointment.

Maracineanu said: "I salute the arrival of Amelie Mauresmo at the head of the most beautiful tennis tournament in the world. As well as being an exceptional athlete and an engaging women, she represents the necessity of tolerance and modernity. Bravo."

Serena Williams has withdrawn from the Australian Open as she is not yet ready to make a comeback from injury.

Williams has not played since suffering a torn hamstring at Wimbledon in June.

The 40-year-old stated last month that she was "better" and planned to play in the first grand slam of 2022 at Melbourne Park.

Williams will not go in search of a record-equalling 24th major title next month, though, revealing she is not fit enough to take her place in the draw.

She said in a statement: "Following the advice of my medical team, I have decided to withdraw from this year's Australian Open. While this is never an easy decision to make, I am not where I need to be physically to compete. 

"Melbourne  is one of my favourite cities to visit and I look forward to playing at the AO every year. I will miss seeing the fans but am excited to return and compete at my highest level."

The legendary American's last grand slam triumph came at the Australian Open in 2017.

While Williams will not compete, world number one Ash Barty will participate, as will US Open champion Emma Raducanu and four-time grand slam winner Naomi Osaka.

Ash Barty has won the WTA's Player of the Year award for a second time, while Emma Raducanu's sensational 2021 season was capped with the Newcomer of the Year prize on Tuesday.

Barty collected the tour's top individual year-end award in 2019, having won the French Open and finished that season as the world number one.

And after Sofia Kenin succeeded her in 2020, Barty is back on top this year.

This was the third straight season the Australian superstar claimed the year-end number one ranking, and it saw her land a second major title at Wimbledon. Barty's five WTA titles in 2021 were unsurpassed.

But she has had to share the limelight in recent months with Raducanu, and that was the case again as the 19-year-old Briton was unsurprisingly hailed as the tour's star newcomer.

Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a grand slam when she swept to glory at the US Open, having also impressed in a run to the last 16 at Wimbledon.

The teenager, who has risen from 343rd to 19th in the rankings in the past year, won 10 straight matches without dropping a set from the first qualifying round to the final at Flushing Meadows.

Elsewhere, Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova collected a pair of awards, scooping Most Improved Player and, alongside Olympic, WTA Finals and French Open-winning partner Katerina Siniakova, the Doubles Team of the Year.

Carla Suarez Navarro, who retired in 2020 and was then diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, returned to the tour cancer free in 2021 for a farewell season and carried off the Comeback Player of the Year award.

Bianca Andreescu will miss the 2022 Australian Open to focus on her mental health after suffering a "very challenging" couple of years.

Andreescu has struggled with physical and mental concerns since winning the US Open two years ago.

The 21-year-old has felt the strain even more this year, with her grandmother in intensive care after contracting COVID-19, Andreescu also testing positive and spending significant time in isolation.

The former world number four has decided to skip the first grand slam next year as she takes extra time out to "reset, recover and grow", but vowed to return "stronger than ever."

The Canadian tweeted: "As you all know, the past two years have been very challenging for me for a variety of reasons.

"Especially this year in particular, I spent multiple weeks in isolation quarantining which affected me greatly – both mentally and physically. In addition, my grandmother spent several weeks in the ICU due to a covid infection, something that really hit me hard.

"A lot of days, I did not feel like myself, especially while I was training and/or playing matches. I felt like I was carrying the world on my shoulders.

"I could not detach myself from everything that was going on off the court; was feeling the collective sadness and turmoil around it and it took its toll on me.

"I want to give myself extra time to reset, recover and grow from this (as cliche [sic] as that sounds) and continue to inspire by doing charity work, giving back and working on myself because I know by doing this, I will come back stronger than ever.

"I will therefore not start my season in Australia this year, but will take some additional time to reflect, train and be ready for the upcoming 2022 season."

 

Novak Djokovic has backed the stance of the WTA after it suspended all tournaments in China amid ongoing concerns of the safety and wellbeing of Peng Shuai.

Peng made sexual assault allegations in early November against Zhang Ghaoli, the ex-vice-premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, and has not been seen in public since.

She posted the allegations on Chinese social media site Weibo, though her post has since been removed and her whereabouts have been unclear.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has held two video calls with Peng, including one on Thursday, but the WTA chairman Steve Simon said neither the first call nor an email allegedly received from the tennis player alleviated concerns.

The WTA, who run the women's tennis tour, suspended its upcoming tournaments in China on Wednesday amid continuing concerns over Peng's safety and Djokovic agrees with the organisation's stance.

"I support fully the WTA's stance because we don't have enough information about Peng Shuai and her well-being," the men's world number one told reporters at Thursday's Davis Cup news conference.

"I think the position of the WTA is very bold and very courageous."

The IOC said it will hold a "personal meeting" in January with Peng as they released a statement on the same day as the second call to repeat the message of the "quiet diplomacy" route that was being taken with Chinese sport bodies.

The International Olympic Committee says it has spoken to Peng Shuai for a second time and will hold a "personal meeting" in January with the Chinese tennis star amid continuing concerns for her safety.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Olympic body repeated a previous message that it was taking a "quiet diplomacy" route and speaking to Chinese sport bodies about what it described as "the difficult situation she is in".

Peng made allegations in November of sexual assault against Zhang Gaoli, the ex-vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee. The two-time doubles grand slam winner posted the allegations on social media site Weibo, though her post has since been removed and her whereabouts since have been unclear.

The WTA, which runs the main women's tennis tour, suspended its upcoming tournaments in China on Wednesday owing to its ongoing worries about Peng's wellbeing.

An email allegedly sent by Peng was received recently by WTA chairman Steve Simon, with the message saying the sexual assault allegations were false and that the tennis star was safely at home. Simon said that email only heightened his worries over Peng's safety.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach was pictured in conversation by video link with Peng last month, and now the IOC says there was further contact on Wednesday with the 35-year-old former French Open and Wimbledon doubles winner.

The IOC said: "We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai. This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her. We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.

"There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations.

"We are using 'quiet diplomacy' which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.

"The IOC's efforts led to a half-hour videoconference with Peng Shuai on 21 November, during which she explained her situation and appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in. This was reconfirmed in yesterday's call. Our human and person-centred approach means that we continue to be concerned about her personal situation and will continue to support her."

Beijing, China's capital, is due to host the Winter Olympics in February. There could be a heightened focus on Peng should the situation not be satisfactorily resolved by then.

There has been no suggestion of the Games being in any doubt due to the global concern over Peng, but the women's tennis tour will not be visiting China for the foreseeable future, barring a change in circumstances.

WTA chairman Simon said on Wednesday: "In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault."

The WTA has suspended its upcoming tournaments in China amid concern over the safety of Peng Shuai after she made allegations of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official.

Peng was not seen in public for several weeks after leveling the accusations against Zhang Gaoli, the ex-vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee.

She posted the allegations on social media site Weibo in early November, though her post has since been removed and her whereabouts have been unclear.

In mid-November, an email allegedly sent by Peng was received by WTA chairman Steve Simon, who expressed his confusion and disbelief at the message, which claimed the sexual assault allegations were false and that the tennis star was safely at home.

The WTA also welcomed pictures of Peng on a video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, but a spokesperson for the women's tennis organisation insisted that did not alleviate the concern.

Simon called for a full investigation into the incident as he said the prior email only heightened his worries over Peng's safety, also threatening to suspend WTA tournament action in China until the matter was resolved.

He has since confirmed the suspension will be imposed on tournaments in China in a statement released on Wednesday.

"When on November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai posted an allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official, the Women's Tennis Association recognised that Peng Shuai's message had to be listened to and taken seriously," Simon's statement read. 

"The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less.

"From that moment forward, Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved.

"As Peng said in her post, 'Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.' She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage."

The statement outlined a number of grievances with the way the Chinese state has handled the matter, before adding: "As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.

"In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault."

Former British number one Johanna Konta has announced her retirement from tennis after a continuous battle with a knee injury.

Konta, who is a three-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, has not featured on the WTA Tour since August and decided to step away aged 30.

She became the first British woman in 39 years to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2017, while also making the last four at the Australia Open a year earlier and at the French Open in 2019.

Australia-born Konta, a former world number four, collected four titles on the WTA Tour and represented Great Britain in the Fed Cup.

In a statement posted on social media on Wednesday, Konta said: "Grateful. This is the word that I've probably been used to the most during my career, and is the word that I feel explains it best at the end.

"My playing career has come to an end, and I am so incredibly grateful for the career that it turned out to be.

"All the evidence pointed towards me not 'making' it in this profession. However, my luck materialised in the people that came into my life and impacted my existence in ways that transcended tennis.

"I am so incredibly grateful for these people. You know who you are."

Konta made her last tour-level appearance at the Cincinnati Open on August 18 when she lost in the first round to Karolina Muchova.

The Briton had only one win in her last five majors since reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open in 2019 and dropped to 113th in the rankings but remains thankful for the opportunities she has been granted.

"Through my own resilience and through the guidance of others, I got to live my dreams," she added. "I got to become what I wanted and said as a child.

"How incredibly fortunate I count myself to be. How grateful I am."

China has called for people to stop "deliberately and maliciously hyping up" the Peng Shuai saga.

Two-time grand slam doubles champion was reported to have been missing since making sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaol, the ex-vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, more than three weeks ago.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) welcomed pictures that showed Peng on a video call with International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, but say the images do not alleviate its concerns about her wellbeing.

According to the IOC, Peng said she is "safe and well" in the call on Sunday and the 35-year-old spoke to president Bach for half an hour.

Despite footage released by Chinese state-run media on Saturday purporting to show Peng in a restaurant with friends, followed by images of her at a youth tournament on Sunday, concerns have continued to be raised regarding her safety.

Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic are among many fellow players to have issued a plea for answers over Peng's whereabouts.

Human rights group Amnesty International stated the IOC is "entering dangerous waters" by taking part in a call with Peng and "should be extremely careful not to participate in any whitewash of possible human rights violations."

There was a firm message from China's foreign ministry on Tuesday, declared the issue is "not a diplomatic matter".

"I believe you have all seen that she recently attended some public events and had a video call [with IOC president Bach]," spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.

"I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise this issue."

 

 

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