Naomi Osaka wanted a reset after her 23-match winning streak came to an end at the Miami Open, and the four-time Grand Slam champion will get just that—for better or worse—as she makes her return at the Mutua Madrid Open on a surface she’s successfully avoided for the better part of two years.
“I haven't touched clay in two years either,” the No. 2 seed confirmed at the pre-tournament press conference. “I'm just going in here just trying to have fun and trying to build, I guess, match play for French.”
The reigning US and Australian Open champion did share practice footage of some admirable attempts at sliding on green clay last week, but aims to gain more meaningful insight on what best to work on once she’s back on the match court.
“It's really hard to tell because I can't remember how I felt the last time I was here playing, but I do know that I think I'm hitting the ball pretty well. I can only hope that for now that's good enough. Maybe when I play my matches I'll be able to adjust a lot better.
“As of right now, I don't really have that much experience to be able to tell what's good on clay and what's not good on clay.”
The former world No. 1 has already achieved much in her short career, and though nearly all of it has come on concrete, Osaka hasn’t been a complete disaster on dirt. A quarterfinalist in her most recent Madrid and Rome attempts, she not only reached the third round in three out of four French Open appearances, but also took the first set from Simona Halep on the terre battue in 2016.
Now with Halep’s former coach Wim Fissette, the 23-year-old has an opportunity to rise to a new challenge, and arrives with the advantage of feeling refreshed after a busy start to her season.
“After Miami I took a bit of a break because I felt like, I don't know, I needed to slow my mind down a little bit.
“I felt like I needed it because after Australia I had, like, one day of rest,” she adds later on, “then I immediately started working. It wasn't tennis, but other stuff. For me, I just felt like the hard-court swing, the Australian hard-court swing, plus Miami, was kind of compressed for me. I didn't really have time to see my family because I haven't seen them since Christmas before I went down to Florida. I just wanted to spend time with them and chill out a little bit.”
Osaka reached the third round of Roland Garros in 2019, defeating Victoria Azarenka en route (Getty Images).
With more eyes likely on Halep and top seed Ashleigh Barty, another former French Open champion who kicked off her clay-court campaign with a title at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, Osaka will play with as much pressure as she puts on herself, which may allow her to strike that crucial balance between goals and expectations.
“I feel for me it's exciting to go into the clay-court swing because I haven't won a tournament on clay yet. Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of, like, stress because I really want to do well here.”
“I think for me, I do better when I don't stress myself out and tell myself that I have to win a tournament. But it's really hard to fight that feeling when, I don't know, you really want something.”
Anchoring the bottom half of the draw alongside Halep as her projected semifinal opponent, Osaka is in a quarter with fellow former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova and will open against a qualifier with a possible second-round encounter against Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova looming thereafter.