By Nick Mulvenney

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Naomi Osaka returned to Grand Slam tennis after maternity leave in the same way she left it with a first-round loss after going down 6-4 7-6(2) to Caroline Garcia on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open on Monday.

Taking on the experienced French 16th seed was always going to be a big challenge for the twice Australian Open champion, who returned to tournament tennis only two weeks ago after 15 months out.

The power that took Osaka to four Grand Slam titles before she took time off to have daughter Shai was still there but it was always going to take the 26-year-old time to rediscover her accuracy in clutch moments.

Garcia said she had a huge amount of respect for Osaka and was sure it would not be long before the Japanese former world number one was back at the top of the game.

“She has had an amazing career, she has been away for 15 months and been through a lot,” the 30-year-old said.

“I hope she can enjoy her tennis. She has done a lot for tennis in the past few years. Six months after giving birth and she’s playing amazing, so we have to watch out.”

A double fault gave Garcia, an aggressive baseliner like Osaka, the first break point of the match in the fifth game and the former world number four converted it to edge ahead. Osaka had a sniff of a break back at deuce in the eighth game but dumped a routine backhand into the net and Garcia held with back-to-back aces before going on to take the set.

The twice U.S. Open champion won her first three service games of the second set to love, but Garcia was serving so well that Osaka was unable to build any pressure.

Osaka had beaten Garcia 6-2 6-3 on the way to her 2021 triumph at Melbourne Park but this was a much tighter contest with the second set decided in a tiebreak.

Still hitting the mark with her first serves, Garcia raced to a big lead and clinched the win on her first match point when Osaka found the net with another backhand.

“I had to be as solid as I could and be aggressive every time I had the chance,” said Garcia.

“She was really trying to put pressure on my second serve but I managed to stay solid and be a bit more aggressive at the end.”

It was Osaka’s earliest exit in eight visits to the Australian Open and her third successive loss in the opening round of a Grand Slam after she fell at the first hurdle at the French and U.S. Opens in 2022.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ken Ferris and Christian Radnedge)

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