Tennis Channel Live: Naomi Osaka returns to the practice court

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If you’re a fan of Naomi Osaka, the mercurial young champion who hasn’t swung a racquet since she was tripped up in the third round of the US Open by Leylah Fernandez, you probably kept checking your Instagram feed for that telltale post showing Osaka on or near a tennis court, dressed for practice and all ready to go.

Osaka dropped out of the WTA Top 10 in early October, ending a streak of 140 consecutive weeks in that elite company (often at No. 1). It signaled the end of a calamitous 10 months for the 24-year-old—a year that began in triumph as she captured her fourth Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, but ended with Osaka abusing her racquet and coming close to an emotional meltdown in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Until last week—when that telltale post happened—Osaka had been posting glam shots of herself dressed in exotic locations. She has also pushed products for her extensive list of sponsors. Fan websites gush that she’s living “her best life.” The problem is that most Grand Slam champions consider tennis their best life, and integrate it with their other interests—just ask either Williams sister, or Roger Federer.

Even before Osaka triggered a broad culture dialogue at the 2021 French Open, when she declared that she wouldn’t participate in press conferences, her comfort-level as a top player was questionable. The first sign that Osaka was not entirely thrilled at being the player with the target on her back occurred after she powered to the No. 1 ranking by winning the Australian Open in 2019.

The newly minted No. 1 stunned the tennis community when she broke off with the coach who had guided her ascent from No. 72 in the rankings, Sasha Bajin. Osaka made the announcement in a terse tweet just 17 days after she won her second major.

Osaka admitted to struggling with the pressure of her position in the months that followed. Two days before the start of Wimbledon that year, Osaka said in a news conference: “Mentally it [being No. 1] was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined, I don't think there was anything that could have prepared me for that.” Then she went out and lost in the first round and fell out of the top spot.

Other great players have experienced similar setbacks and rebounded. Osaka herself duplicated those early back-to-back wins at the US and Australian Opens in 2020 and 2021.

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In September, Osaka failed to defend her US Open title, taking a third-round loss to eventual runner-up Fernandez.

In September, Osaka failed to defend her US Open title, taking a third-round loss to eventual runner-up Fernandez.

The challenge in the future will be different. For one thing, there’s her fitness. Having only just begun to hit, Osaka comes off a season in which she played just 24 matches, and only three tournaments that consisted of more than two matches—her first three, in Australia and Miami.

Also, the longer Osaka is out, the further her ranking will drop, no longer protected by tweaks made to adjust to the Covid pandemic. If she allows the rust to build, and can’t retain a ranking high enough to be seeded at big events, the path back to the top will be steep.

Osaka’s efforts on social media and promotional activities have kept her in the public eye, but they also created a backlash. According to Yahoo!, Osaka ended the 2020-21 financial year having earned $55.2 million, she earned $20 million more than Serena Williams—and roughly 10 times more than the No. 3 earner, celebrated gymnast Simone Biles. That makes it harder for Joe Public to feel a lot of sympathy for her.

Osaka has said she feels uncomfortable answering probing questions by the media, but if and when she comes back she should be prepared to face a barrage of them.