On Dec. 31, as the ultimate hours of 2021 ticked away, Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter: “I’ve never been more excited for a year to be over.”
Osaka, who had not performed a aggressive tennis match since shedding within the third spherical of the U.S. Open to the world’s 73rd-ranked participant, was getting a bounce on the beginning of 2022 in Melbourne, Australia, after her second prolonged break from the sport in seven months. And who may blame her.
Within the 10 months since she gained her fourth Grand Slam title, in Australia, her future had gone from can’t-miss superstardom to one thing much more regarding.
As final winter closed, Osaka was the dominant determine in her sport and the world’s highest paid feminine athlete at simply 23 years previous, in addition to a revered voice on social justice issues. After which she grew to become one thing else completely.
“There was a time after the French Open where I felt like everyone was judging me,” she mentioned after her first-round win on the Australian Open Monday. “It feels a bit weird when you go into a stadium to play and you’re kind of concerned what everyone’s gaze means.”
Her recreation started to unravel within the early spring, particularly because the competitors moved to clay, the place she has by no means been comfy. A confrontation with French Open officers over her refusal to seem at necessary postmatch information conferences led to her withdrawal from the tournament. She went public together with her yearslong battle with despair, took two months off, then returned on the Tokyo Olympics, the place she lit the torch however misplaced within the third spherical amid relentless stress to excel.
Then got here the upset within the U.S. Open, the place she was a favourite to efficiently defend her title, however exited with a tearful admission that taking part in tennis now not made her comfortable, if it ever did. Abruptly, that second of triumph on the 2020 U.S. Open felt ominous: After prevailing in three units, she barely smiled and as a substitute lay within the heart of the court docket, staring on the darkish sky.
“It was just like an extreme buildup, and you just happened to see it all release last year,” a rusty Osaka mentioned this month, after her first tuneup match in Melbourne, a messy three-set win over Alizé Cornet.
Osaka grew sharper, and calmer, in her subsequent two matches, each straight-set wins, then pulled out of the warm-up match forward of her semifinal, saying her physique was in shock after taking part in three matches in 5 days after a layoff that she had anticipated to final for much longer.
“I actually really thought I wasn’t going to play for most of this year,” she mentioned. “I was feeling kind of like I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I’m pretty sure a lot of people can relate to that.”
In some methods, referring to Osaka, who performs Madison Brengle within the second spherical on the Australian Open on Wednesday, has by no means been simpler. Her story — although nobody is aware of the way it will finish — is a cautionary story for anybody pursuing a dream that will not be her personal or for anybody who must press the pause button, whatever the penalties.
Regardless of her vast wealth and early success, or maybe due to them, she has by no means appeared extra susceptible. And but there’ll all the time be a take away with Osaka, who could be painfully shy, a type of wall that even individuals who have been near her have struggled to interrupt via. That has solely gotten tougher as her persona has grown, as a result of so have the obstacles and the group of gatekeepers surrounding her because the pressures of success and fame mount.
“In some ways, this all can be easier with a more outgoing person,” mentioned Harold Solomon, the previous professional who coached Osaka when she was a teen. “Naomi is quiet and introspective. I’m not sure if she was really clear of what all of this would mean.”
Now, again in Australia, the place the place issues last appeared right in her world, is she prepared for the crucible? Even when she prevails, in matches, within the largest tournaments, is that an acceptable solution to measure the success and well-being of somebody who simply 4 months in the past couldn’t discover pleasure on a tennis court docket? Is that this actually the life Osaka desires?
Osaka, a self-described introvert, not often grants interviews. She speaks in tightly managed settings or postmatch information conferences throughout tournaments, the place she has mentioned she would favor to not seem. (It’s additionally potential that her complaints about information conferences have been merely a vessel for her bigger complaints concerning the life of a professional tennis participant.)
Her dad and mom, together with her father, Leonard Francois, who pushed his daughters to pursue tennis, following the blueprint of Richard Williams, now not converse publicly. Osaka declined via her representatives to be interviewed for this text. Behind microphones, she communicates intentionally, in clipped phrases which can be turned time and again. When she has emoted, it has often been on Instagram or Twitter.
Sascha Bajin, who coached Osaka to her first two Grand Slam titles, on the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open, mentioned he initially had to determine learn how to get her to belief him sufficient to take part in essentially the most primary communication.
“Naomi was so shy in the beginning, she didn’t even talk,” he mentioned in a current interview. Bajin observed that she preferred anime. So he started watching it, and studying about it, then made informal references to it earlier than or after apply, which started to attract her out. “She saw that I showed interest in something that interested her. With Naomi it takes trust and belief.”
By no means celebrated profitable factors or video games.
There’s a very primary and truthful query to ask when contemplating Osaka’s profession: Does she really like tennis? Did she ever?
“Yeaahhh?” Solomon mentioned in a singsong, the way in which folks intonate when they aren’t fairly satisfied of what they’re saying.
Solomon was considered one of a number of South Florida coaches who shared his companies at little or no value to assist Francois fulfill his dream of manufacturing the subsequent iteration of Venus and Serena Williams.
Mari, who is eighteen months older than Naomi and as free together with her feelings as Naomi is bottled up, initially had extra drive to attain stardom, Solomon and the opposite coaches mentioned. She in the end lacked the dimensions, pace and energy of her youthful sister, who at 5 toes 11 inches is a couple of half-foot taller. Mari Osaka’s singles rating peaked at 280 in 2018. She retired final 12 months.
Her youthful sister’s motivations have been extra of a thriller.
Invoice Adams, who coached the women when the household first moved to Florida from New York in 2006, mentioned Naomi Osaka was powerful to learn whilst a 10-year-old. She by no means refused to do a drill or “made a face,” Adams mentioned, however she by no means celebrated good pictures or profitable factors or video games. A dozen years later, Adams bumped into Osaka on the Evert Tennis Academy after she gained the Indian Wells Masters, the primary vital title of her profession.
“I told her I was pleased because I didn’t think you really liked it in the beginning,” Adams mentioned.
For years, the coaches mentioned, beating her older sister was Osaka’s major motivation. As soon as that grew to become potential, her goals expanded. Patrick Tauma, who coached the Osaka ladies when Naomi was in her midteens, mentioned he as soon as requested her what she dreamed of undertaking on the tennis court docket. She instructed him it was to beat Serena Williams within the ultimate of the U.S. Open.
She completed that in 2018, however the win was considerably tarnished by Williams’s meltdown amid confrontations with the chair umpire, who penalized her for receiving teaching through the match. On the trophy ceremony, Osaka was in tears.
“I feel like she lost her purpose,” Tauma mentioned. “She is so young. It all went so fast for her.”
Osaka’s relationship with Solomon, who coached her when she was 16, was much less harmonious. It ended not lengthy after he questioned her definition of working laborious, each day. He mentioned the dynamic of their relationship was backward, with the coach pulling the coed as a substitute of the opposite approach round.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t there at times, but to bring out the full potential, you need to do that on a consistent basis,” Solomon mentioned. “She was young, I was maybe too impatient, but I’m not going to spend time on the court with you if you are not willing to do that.”
Work, wins, after which a crash.
Clearly, Osaka discovered learn how to work laborious persistently sufficient to win 4 Grand Slam titles, however ultimately winning offered relief fairly than happiness or achievement, regardless of the cash, fame and platform that it additionally gave her.
Did she perceive every thing that will come together with her success on the court docket, Tauma questioned — the warmth of the highlight, the obligations to sponsors, the burden of being an emblem of a brand new, more multicultural and open Japan?
“She just wants to be a tennis player,” Tauma mentioned. “Now she is a money machine. All these people working around her like a company. She feels like I am not a player anymore.”
Within the fall, he reached out to Osaka’s group and supplied to spend a little bit time on the court docket together with her as a approach of getting again to her roots and remembering the great issues concerning the recreation and “the smell of when you were starving.” Tauma by no means heard again.
On the time, Osaka was busy with issues she didn’t get to do rising up, like driving from her house in Los Angeles to the Bay Space to have sleepovers.
“I didn’t really have that many friends, so I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she mentioned.
Ultimately her want to be on the court docket as soon as extra returned. She texted her coach and coach and requested if they’d be prepared to work together with her once more. “I was just sitting in my house wondering, what do I want to do in the future?” she mentioned. Throughout her first practices, she tried to be aware of whether or not she needed to be there, whether or not she may very well be absolutely dedicated in every second, as a result of if she didn’t, she knew she was losing everybody’s time.
“I’m not sure if this is going to work out well,” she mentioned this month in Melbourne.
Osaka was largely stable in her first-round win over Camila Osorio of Spain. She mentioned that she typically feels comfortable beginning the 12 months in Australia. Whether or not she will keep that approach is anybody’s guess.