WATCH: Tennis Channel Live analyzes Naomi Osaka's start to the season in Australia.


For the first time since 2019, Naomi Osaka is set to make her return to the California desert—not as a returning champion or as a top seed, but as a wildcard. It’s the first sign of the ripple effect caused by her steep drop down the WTA rankings, from world No. 13 at the start of the season to No. 80 currently.

But according to former champion and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport, Indian Wells could be the first big step on Osaka’s climb back to the top of the game.

“That's the reality of her situation. She will not be unseeded for a long time. She will make her way back up. She's way too good of a player,” said Davenport, speaking to Baseline via a conference call ahead of the WTA 1000 event.

Osaka spent much of last season prioritizing her mental health, but her world No. 2 ranking suffered as a result. From winning the 2021 Australian Open, her fourth Grand Slam title, and consolidating her place atop the women’s game, Osaka played just three more tournaments during the second half of the season after pulling out of Roland Garros. She called an end to her season after the US Open, skipping Indian Wells in favor of spending time off the courts reflecting.

In 2018, a No. 44-ranked Osaka lifted her first WTA title in Indian Wells.

In 2018, a No. 44-ranked Osaka lifted her first WTA title in Indian Wells.

"Just saying out loud that I'll take a break and I will come back when I am truly in love with the sport and I know what I want to do here… it gave me time to reset myself," Osaka recalled on Good Morning America.

Osaka now hovers around the WTA’s Top 80 as she makes her return to the tournament she won as a 20-year-old in 2018. Like other former Grand Slam champions on the comeback trail including fellow wildcards Sofia Kenin and Andy Murray, her ranking doesn’t grant her direct entry into the packed main draw.

But that’s not to say we should count her out quite yet, according to Davenport. The Japanese player’s big-hitting game can still overwhelm many players who try to go toe-to-toe with Osaka from the baseline, and her booming serve always gives her an edge on hard-courts.

“Anytime you've won a tournament before, you never want to count that player out,” added former No. 1 Davenport.


In 2018, a 20-year-old Osaka scored a series of statement victories—including a straight-sets win over Maria Sharapova in the first round, and a 6-3, 6-0 rout of World No. 1 Simona Halep in the semifinals—to catapult her to her first WTA title. By the end of the year she would lift the first of her four Grand Slam trophies in New York.

The Japanese player has been frank about her journey toward rediscovering her love of the game—and thankfully for tennis fans, the results have shown on the court in recent months. Osaka kicked off the year playing some great tennis, although she ran up against an on-fire Amanda Anisimova in the third round of Melbourne.

Another good omen for Osaka? Since 2017, every Indian Wells champion has come from outside the WTA’s Top 10: No. 15 Elena Vesnina in 2017, Osaka herself at No. 44 in 2018, No. 60-ranked wildcard Bianca Andreescu in 2019, and rising Spaniard Paula Badosa, who was No. 27 last year.

“I know from her team, she's very happy again. She's practicing. She's very motivated. When you see those kinds of signs from Osaka, you know you've got to be ready,” Davenport said. “There's always a couple of players that the players who are seeded are like, 'Please do not be in my little section! And Naomi of course would be pretty high on that list.”

The BNP Paribas Open begins in Indian Wells on Tuesday, March 8.