NEW YORK -- Two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka made a welcome return to the US Open on Wednesday and confirmed that her comeback is on for 2024.
The 25-year-old former No.1 has not played since the Toray Pan Pacific Open in September 2022. She stepped away from the game in January and gave birth to her daughter, Shai, in July.
Osaka hopes to kick off her comeback at the start of the next season in Australia and says she plans to play a more robust Hologic WTA Tour schedule as she eases back into the game.
"It's definitely way more tournaments than I used to play," Osaka said in an interview with ESPN. "So I think some people will be happy with that."
"I think it's because I realized that I don't know how the beginning of the year is going to go for me. I don't know the level of play and I think I have to ease into it. So at the very least, I'll set myself up for a very good end of the year."
Osaka was at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to participate in the US Open's forum on mental health, "Mental Health and Sport: Why It Matters." Seated alongside Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, and USTA Chairman of the Board and NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline, Osaka discussed the importance of destigmatizing mental health.
"I learned a lot from the talk as I was talking," Osaka said. I would say my role is raising awareness and letting people know that they're not alone. Physical and mental pain are the same to me. We have doctors for physical health but when we talk about mental health it's not as well received."
Osaka spoke openly about feelings of loneliness during her pregnancy due to being unable to travel or go about her daily routines.
"I definitely only know this world, the tennis world," Osaka said. "Being away from that for a long time, it was new for me. Just the new situation and not being able to train the way I wanted to, it made me feel like I would just stay at home."
Watch the full mental health forum below:
"I think I'm more strategic with my time for sure," Osaka said when asked how she balances her training and motherhood. "There can't be any wasted minutes. Other than that, I'm more careful about how I present myself. There's someone consciously watching me. I picked up so many things from my parents and she's going to do the same thing.
"It's definitely a weird feeling knowing that someone relies on me. I still call my mom all the time. Knowing that this little person is going to grow up and do the same is kind of weird, but I'm excited for it."
Osaka continued to train as much as she was able to during her pregnancy. She even got to hit with Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf.
"I was talking to Brad Gilbert a lot and one day he said Andre is in town, let's go hit with him and hang out," Osaka said. "I get there and Steffi Graf was there, too. I was so nervous, but they were both really sweet people.
"She's so kind but very strict. It would be so cool if she were someone's coach. I would love to get some advice from her from time to time because she really knows what she's talking about.
After the forum, Osaka headed to Arthur Ashe Stadium to take in the men's quarterfinal between Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev. The four-time major champion admitted she is champing at the bit to get back into competition.
"It'd be cool if [my daughter] was proud of me. I also want her to be old enough to see me playing on the court and think, 'Wow that's my Mom'."
Osaka has not been as checked out of the sport as one might think. She has been keeping tabs on the action this week in New York and has been marveling at Coco Gauff's run to the semifinals.
"I'm really proud of everything she does. She seems like such a good person. Everything she's doing and speaking out about all these different topics, I would love my kid to look up to her as a role model. I cheer for her every match that she plays."
Asked for her pick as to who would be holding the trophy on Saturday, Osaka tapped into her own personal experience.
"These are the best players in the world and they all got here fairly," Osaka said. "Anyone can win.
"When I played my first Slam final, did you really think I was gonna win? No.
"Anyone has a chance."