Back At It: Naomi Osaka Returns To Tennis With A New Mindset, Win Or Lose

Naomi Osaka at the Lone Pine Koala Senctuary in Brisbane (photo: Tennis Australia/Dan Peled)

WASHINGTON, January 3, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Naomi Osaka returned to the WTA Tour this week at the Brisbane International presented by Evie with a new mindset, thanks to becoming a first-time mother. While she admits to being more open-minded – a lot more patient – she also feels stronger physically, too.

“I think Shai (Osaka’s baby daughter with longtime boyfriend, American rapper Cordae, born last July) definitely helped me with the way I view things,” the 26-year-old Osaka admitted in a recent news conference in Brisbane. She has been off the WTA Tour since September 2022. “I’m excited to be back. I haven’t worn headphones around the site (Queensland Tennis Centre) since I’ve been back. So, I think that’s character development. It’s just really nice to see everyone again.”

Osaka’s peaceful transformation has translated to an impressive victory against Germany’s 84th-ranked Tamara Korpatsch, 6-3, 7-6 (9) on Monday before she fell to former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, on Wednesday in the season’s first WTA 500-series event.

Against Korpatsch, the unranked Osaka looked sharp in her first match of competitive tennis in 15 months. She held her serve easily and hit some huge returns. There was plenty to like about the sound of Osaka cracking the ball again.

However, two days later against the 39th-ranked Pliskova, seeded 16th, she managed to convert just two of 12 break points and was broken twice. Despite striking 14 aces and hitting 40 winners overall, the break-point conversion was a difference maker in the two-hour, 14-minute match and it marked the fourth time in six meetings that Pliskova had prevailed over the Japanese superstar.

“I’m more confident with who I am as a person,” said Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. She represents Japan on the tennis court while living a very American life in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I never tried to have conversations with other players before, and I think I definitely put a large wall up. Now, I find myself interacting with people. It’s just really cool, like, of I take myself out of being a tennis player, just seeing everyone working hard, being in the gym, like seeing people change over the years, too, coming back and appreciating that is cool.”

When Osaka was asked what, if anything specific, she missed during her sabbatical from tennis, she replied: “I think just the competition part.

“I remember when [the] Australian Open first started, that was the first time that I missed the AO, just feeling really sad, just wanting to get back out there. Even if I lost, I would just want the opportunity to play a match.

“I’ve always been a really competitive person. The competition part is something that I’ve definitely missed the last year.”

Osaka’s time away from tennis, which she began playing at age three, made her learn how to appreciate the sport. Win or lose – and she experienced both this week in Brisbane – Osaka looks like she’s enjoying herself, enjoying the fight on the court.

“I think in the time away, I appreciated the sport a lot more,” the four-time major champion admitted. “After giving birth, I understood how physical and how much work it takes to get there.”

After her loss to Pliskova, Osaka described for reporters what she learned about herself after her first two matches. She replied: “I think I learned that while I had to relearn myself a lot, and I just relearned that — this is my opinion — but I think I have a lot of heart. I think when I’m playing and I’m at my bet, I’m just really putting my entire soul into every point.

“It was fun to play and rediscover that feeling again.”

Swiatek speaks out on Osaka and Nadal returning

During a recent interview with Reem Abulleil for The National News in Abu Dhabi, Iga Swiatek spoke about the respective returns to the tour of Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal. She said: “I really like to watch them, so just from a fan’s perspective I’m really happy that they are coming back and I’m going to be able to see their game.”

Break Point II coming next week to Netflix

Ons Jabeur: “This is me ❤️ … ” — Coming Jan. 7

Petra Kvitova: Joining a growing list of tennis moms

Remembering Torben Ulrich

Passing shots

By the numbers

The last word