As Naomi Osaka plots her 2024 comeback to the Hologic WTA Tour, the former No.1 has reunited the team at the helm when she stepped away two years ago. In addition to rehiring coach Wim Fissette, Osaka also brought back performance coach Florian Zitzelsberger, who oversees all aspects of her health and fitness.
It's a challenge that the experienced German is happy to take on.
"It's an interesting journey for me because the work we started was not quite finished“, Zitzelsberger told WTA Insider. "Now we have the chance.“
"Naomi is a pure talent, quite unbelievable. But still, I see a lot of athletic potential that we can work on. First and foremost, she has to stay healthy, but on the other side, there is so much potential to nurture, strengthen and conquer."
Zitzelsberger has spent the past eight years treating and managing bodies on the ATP and WTA Tours. After finishing his studies in 2014, he began his career working with Chanelle Scheepers before she passed his number to fellow South African Kevin Anderson. From there, things quickly escalated.
"Two days later, I was sitting at the Queen's final, where Kevin was playing against Andy Murray," Zitzelsberger said. "I wanted to focus on performance coaching because I like to help people, to make athletes and human beings reach their greatest potential. I want to help them achieve overall health and to show them how to live a healthy life and get more athletic, day to day."
With his experience working on the WTA Tour with Julia Goerges, Petra Kvitova, Petra Martic and a host of athletes across sports at the Integralis clinic he co-founded with Daniel Pohl, Zitzelsberger is now super motivated to help Osaka reach her goals.
"With Naomi, I am the head of health and performance," Zitzelsberger said. "I'm a strength and conditioning coach, athletic coach, a physiotherapist and an osteopath. I analyze the biomechanics and work to improve the tennis-specific biomechanics.
"From there, I also cover nutrition, which is fundamental for building and maintaining a strong, athletic body. And being an osteopath, I always try to balance out the whole body and being through my treatments. When I'm treating as an osteopath, I'm not treating myofascial muscles or joints. I'm one layer deeper. I'm treating organs, nerves and arteries."
The most immediate challenge for Zitzelsberger is building up Osaka's physicality to lay a stable foundation for her targeted return to competition in January.
"The combination of the pelvis and the trunk together is the power center of the whole athlete," Zitzelsberger said. "[During pregnancy], this power center is not meant to create power but rather preparing a home for a healthy baby. The abdominal wall has to be lengthened and stretched in order for the babys proper development.
"You lose a lot of core strength. By losing the core strength, a lot of the movement chains are getting a little bit irritated. This is the biggest challenge is getting this back: getting powerful hips and getting better stabilization again."
While the challenge is apparent, Zitzelsberger and Fissette are revealing in the opportunity as well. Players rarely have extended blocks of time out of competition to work on physical or technical fundamentals. But Team Osaka will have had a four-month pre-season before boarding the plane to Australia.
"Knowing her, she just wants to go back on court and play a lot of tennis," Zitzelsberger said. "But we have a long-term plan. The most important thing is maintaining her health.
"I really credit Wim, because some coaches would just push every day to play on the court, to have a lot of tennis time. But he wants maximum quality in the strokes on the court, and then we go to the gym and do the work to get her healthy, to have her in a stable position. We know exactly where we want to be in one month, in two months and further into the future.“
The key to putting Osaka back on a successful track is tamping down any sense of urgency. When she returns in January, she will be one of the growing number of mothers on tour, joining the likes of former No.1s Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, and Wimbledon semifinalists Elina Svitolina and Tatjana Maria. The last player to win a major or become No.1 as a mom was Kim Clijsters.
In recent years, the most successful moms on the Grand Slam stage have been Azarenka, who Osaka beat in the 2020 US Open final, and Osaka's idol Serena Williams, who made four major finals in her comeback.
"At the moment, the biggest focus is not tennis," Zitzelsberger said. "The biggest focus is just bringing her back to a really athletic and healthy state, while we can now work on court. From the tennis side, Wim now has the chance to work on things that we always wanted to work on but didn't get the time before."
More with Zitzelsberger:
Q: How did you begin your career in physiotherapy?
Zitzelsberger: I wanted to go into physiotherapy because I also wanted to be a professional athlete. I was on the way in soccer and skiing but was badly injured at 14. I'm happy that I was so badly injured because through this, I understood then what you really can do with your own body without doing injections and taking medication all the time, how you can really change the constitution of a body.
Back home, I did the physiotherapy and athletic coaching education to become a medical doctor. I wanted to study medicine. Everybody recommended me to work with the biggest doctor in sports, Dr. Hans Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt. He recommended that I do physiotherapy and then you can go into sports medicine.
Q: What drew you to working in sports?
Zitzelsberger: Human beings are made for moving, for being athletic, for being quick, for being mobile. But through our habits of today, the only way to be really natural is through sport. Before, a human body was made for running, sprinting, jumping, slowing, moving. This is where the human being comes from.
But today we obviously have a totally different lifestyle. We have so many toxins in our life. And I think if you want to challenge yourself and if you want to grow, you have to do sports.
Q: What's your philosophy in working with athletes?
Zitzelsberger: My clinic is called Integralis and it's all in the name: integrative. We want to integrate all aspects needed to lead a healthy life and bring a healthy athlete to their highest performance. So we have physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, integrative movement coaches, yoga instructors, nutritionists and mental coaches on our team.
At first you need a really athletic foundation. So change of direction is always the same, linear speed, lateral speed, acceleration is always the same joints. At some point, when the body or the athlete has really strong fundamentals, then you can work sport-specific, like tennis-specific. Then you really work on the mechanics of the tennis game.
Q: How did you first come to start working with Naomi?
Zitzelsberger: So I started with Kevin Anderson. He was ranked No.28 and then a few months later he was breaking into the Top 10. At the end of that year, I got the offer from Julia Goerges. She had not been Top 50 for five years. She said she wanted to try one more time to go for it, to really try to have big success. That was how I started on the WTA Tour. Three years later, she was in the Top 10.
After working with Julia for five years, I worked with Petra Kvitova. Then I got the opportunity to work with Naomi in 2022. For the last year I was working with Jule Niemeier on the tour, who I have been coaching in Regensburg and from a distance for the past five years. As I remain working in close collaboration with Michael Gesserer, I also supported Petra Martic over the past two years.
Now, in September, I got the call from Naomi and her team. I am looking forward to team up with Wim Fissette again and support Naomi's complete development.