Usually, when Naomi Osaka walks around the grounds before an event, fans approach her and say things like, “Win the tournament.” Or “I have tickets to the final, see you there.”
This week at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was different. Watching qualifying matches the past few days, the sentiment from fans was, “I hope you have fun.”
Osaka offered up this anecdote Wednesday when asked, “How are you feeling coming into this – not just tennis-wise, but human-wise?”
She responded, “Honestly, I feel like I’m at peace with myself, which I think is a really good feeling to have as a person. I’m really grateful [for the fans’ support]. It really meant a lot to me.”
This is good news for fans of tennis, and for Osaka, too.
She had won two of the three previous Australian Open titles, but back in January the defending champion lost to Amanda Anisimova in a third-round, third-set tiebreak. One of her primary goals heading into 2022 was to have more fun, to enjoy her tennis more, but it was difficult to find that place in the post-match press conference.
“I just think like after winning the Grand Slams, I thought it was kind of an automatic thing,” Osaka said. “So I think just losing [to Anisimova] reminded me that I was human, not saying that I didn’t think I wasn’t human.
“I don’t know. It was kind of, I think, needed.”
That grieving sense of loss is an inevitable piece of this highly individual sport. Some 128 athletes are aligned in a Grand Slam singles draw and 127 will wind up disappointed. Because of her makeup and history – the expectation she created with early success, both in our minds and her own – this is something Osaka is likely wrestle with the rest of her career on tour.
It’s been 48 days since she played her last match, the loss to Anisimova. There are a number of compelling questions surrounding this edition of Indian Wells. With Ashleigh Barty watching from home in Australia and No.2 Barbora Krejcikova nursing an elbow injury, will Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek challenge for the No.1 ranking? Can the teenagers – Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Coco Gauff – follow through on their successes of 2021?
Perhaps the most intriguing unknown in the desert air? What will we see from Osaka when she meets Sloane Stephens, also a major champion, in a first-round match Thursday? No one – particularly Osaka – knows the answer.
In search of context, some pertinent facts:
The 24-year-old, ranked No.78 at the moment, has won more major singles titles (four) than anyone ranked in the Top 100. Barty and Angelique Kerber have three apiece. Those four titles have, impressively, come in the past 11 Grand Slam singles tournaments in which she’s played.
Since winning the 2021 Australian Open, Osaka has taken three significant sabbaticals and played only 20 matches. By contrast, her peers have been much more active. Barty, for example, has logged 55 matches. A number of Top 10 players are in the 60s.
Pam Shriver, an astute analyst for Tennis Channel and ESPN, was hoping Osaka would have played a few tournaments since losing in Melbourne.
“I know this sounds crazy, but I almost wish she had declined the wildcard and played her way through qualifying,” Shriver said. “Because of her ranking, there are going to be a lot of people wondering where Osaka is going to fall in the draw.
“It could go anywhere, from a first-round loss, to another Indian Wells title – to anything in between.”
(In the event, the wildcard originally offered to Osaka was not needed; withdrawals meant that she gained direct entry.)
The long, winding journey
A year ago, before her first match at Roland Garros, Osaka said she would not participate in post-match press conferences to facilitate the continued maintenance of her mental health. For two months afterward, she did not play an official point.
Instead, Osaka visited with family and friends, meditated, read and wrote in her journal. She split her time between her $7 million home in Beverley Hills (purchased three years earlier from singer Nick Jonas) and another residence in Boca Raton, Florida.
When she did return, she fell early at the Tokyo Olympic Games and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Osaka then lost to teenager Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the US Open.
“I’m at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” she said after that loss, “and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
She took another extended break.
Osaka’s first match back in 2022 – she said it felt like “ages ago” since she had last played – was in the Melbourne Summer Set 1, a 500-level tournament. She won three matches before citing an abdominal injury and granting a walkover into the finals to Veronika Kudermetova.
During the week, Osaka posted an Instagram story, recommending the Mardy Fish documentary Untold: Breaking Point. Fish, a former professional tennis player, has also suffered from depression and anxiety.
“I felt a lot of young tennis players should definitely watch it because I felt like I related to a lot of things that he said,” Osaka told reporters. “I also think that maybe if I watched it when I was younger, it would have altered a little bit of the stress and the pressure that I would put on myself.”
That stress and pressure began in earnest with the first tour-level victory of her career. Four years ago at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Osaka, ranked No.44 at the time, went from a potential prodigy to a champion on a major stage.
Osaka, 20 at the time, took out two former World No.1s – Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova – before defeating the reigning No.1, Simona Halep in the semifinals. All in stone-cold straight sets. The result was the same in the final over Daria Kasatkina. Osaka became only the third unseeded player to take the title at Indian Wells, joining Serena Williams (1999) and Kim Clijsters (2005). She received a check for $1.3 million, nearly her entire career winnings to that point.
The phrase “life-changing” crops up a lot in stories like this, but this was truly a defining moment.
“I was extremely stressed and extremely nervous,” Osaka said afterward, “but my plan was to fake that I’m very calm. I really wanted to win this, but also I just tried to think it was a first-round match and just not psych myself out too much. I don’t really know what's going on right now. I really feel like I have another match I have to play tomorrow, and it didn’t really sink in that I won.
“So, yeah, I’m just trying to be, like, “Woohoo” [pointing to trophy]. I’m happy.”
A fresh perspective
In a way, these thoughts were a microcosm of the next four years to come. Over time, the stress sometimes became overwhelming. Despite spectacular success, that happiness waned.
Shriver has followed Osaka’s career from the beginning. She met her at a USTA training camp in Carson, California, when she was 14 and already crushing opponents’ second serves from inside the baseline. She was awed by her emerging power sitting courtside for ESPN when Osaka took the title four years ago at Indian Wells.
“In this new, mature working-on-herself mode to be healthier in all ways,” Shriver said earnestly, “I hope she still has the drive and the ingredients that made her the most feared player on hard courts for three-and-a-half years.
“I really hope she can get that back.”
Because she’s a perfectionist, Osaka said, there are always doubts in her head about her ability to win the next Grand Slam. The journey of the past 12 months, she said, has provided her with a new understanding.
“I would say I’ve learned to enjoy my time more,” Osaka said. “Playing tennis is something that I’ve trained my entire life for, like for years and years. But then when I’m 70 or something it will probably be a small chapter for me.
“So I have to enjoy it while I still can.”