Naomi Osaka Comes Back Sharp(ish)

The former world number one returns to a vastly different tennis landscape.

The former world number one returns to a vastly different tennis landscape.

By Giri NathanFebruary 16, 2024

Naomi Osaka is getting ever closer to beating Karolina Pliskova. / Associated Press

Naomi Osaka is getting ever closer to beating Karolina Pliskova. / Associated Press

Coming into this year, I had a series of interrelated questions about a returning champ. What level of Naomi Osaka would we see after her long break from competition? And: How does that version of Osaka stack up against a tour of a slightly scarier composition than the one she left behind? And: How would she handle that potential culture shock? The good part is that we’d get clear answers from Osaka’s characteristically unguarded and impressionistic press conferences. (Even though she has historically had her issues with those, she’s great at them!)

It was difficult to imagine Osaka waltzing back into the top 10. I figured there’d be a phase for her to find her legs and rhythm again, and then another (potentially more complicated and demoralizing) phase where she puzzled out how to beat the new top-end competition. The landscape has gotten wilder in the three years since her last title. Ash Barty has retired, extinguishing one hypothetical rivalry, but nothing else about the job description has gotten any easier. Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka have upgraded their tennis beyond recognition; Elena Rybakina is a thing now; Coco Gauff is no longer someone to extend a gracious microphone to after an emotional loss, but a major champ and nightmare to hit through; the whole top 30 is stuffed with talent that could run an unprepared Osaka out of her previous roost at the top of tennis.

Osaka would have to come back sharp. No easy task for someone who hadn’t competed at that level in some 15 months and had candidly discussed the challenges of physical recovery after childbirth in July. “Having a baby completely destroys your pelvic floor,” Osaka told Glamour in January. “I was shocked, because I couldn’t get up out of my bed. I had to roll sideways, and it was a really long process because, for me, my immediate way of thinking is: To rebuild this I have to do a lot of sit-ups. And I learned that that’s totally not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to do deep pelvic-floor work.” She shared clips of her practices, bloopers and all, in the latter months of 2023.

When she hit the courts in Australia, Osaka proved both how much work she’d already put in and how much work there was still to do in order to match her old glory. In Brisbane she looked deadly from the baseline, if perhaps a half step slow; she won her first match, against Tamara Korpatsch, and lost the second to a diminished Karolina Pliskova. Coming into the Australian Open with a protected ranking of No. 45, Osaka ran straight into No. 5 seed Carolina Garcia, who was having One Of Those Carolina Garcia Nights, where the serve is profoundly untouchable and there’s a prohibition against rallies longer than four balls. “I felt like I was constantly on my back foot and really hesitant,” Osaka said after her straight-set loss to a hyperaggressive Garcia. “I was a little bit overthinking in my head where to go. I think that’s something that will come in time, but right now it kind of sucks a little.”

Then it was onto Abu Dhabi, where Osaka played Danielle Collins. A competitive start degraded into a rout, as Collins strung together nine straight games to win the match. “I say some pretty harsh words about myself. I know the word, but if I say it, it sounds really bad. I felt a little like a ‘failure,’ but I don’t want to be too harsh,” Osaka said after. She said she was less confident, but not so unconfident that she couldn’t play good tennis. “I really think I just need to get through a really tough match and then sort of acknowledge that that’s going to happen quite a couple of times.”

This week in Doha, she got the reps she was looking for, against some familiar faces. First off, she avenged last month’s loss against Carolina Garcia. On her second go, Osaka returned better—she said she’d adopted some new footwork technique from Novak Djokovic—and moved better in the rallies, generally doing a more convincing impression of her old self. She kept at it with her second-round win over Petra Martic, digging out of a hole in the second-set tiebreak to secure the first back-to-back wins of her comeback. After benefiting from a walkover, Osaka advanced to a quarterfinal against (once again) Karolina Pliskova, in a battle of diminished former world No. 1s. The result? Another close loss for Osaka, just like last month, this time in two tiebreaks. These consistent checks against the same opponents are useful as a kind of benchmark. Osaka’s status is clear enough: can now beat Garcia on a good day, but still working on the rebounding Pliskova. Not so bad a place to be a month into the comeback.


The Hopper

—Naomi (and Barbora Krejcikova) have pulled out of Dubai.

—New York magazine has profiled Bill Ackman, who is funding the PTPA.

—Simona Halep is suing a supplement maker.

—Rafael Nadal says he did not, in fact, sell out.

—ICYMI: “Coach” Craig Shapiro gets candid with tennis mom Aneke Rune.