As she embarks on her comeback to competitive tennis, former No.1 Naomi Osaka says she's working on letting her guard down and soaking in all the pleasures she's missed in her 15-month sabbatical. 

The most noticeable symbol of change? Gone are her trademark headphones, which she wore religiously when around the tournament grounds. The headphones were a protective tactic for the notoriously introverted star, used to ward off any unwanted social interaction. 

"It's very new," Osaka told WTA Insider from Brisbane, where she is set to make her competitive return next week at the Brisbane International. "I'm very surprised and shocked with myself. 

"It's cool to talk to the other players. Some of them have been saying welcome back, and I appreciate that a lot. I'm trying to soak it all in."

The last time Osaka stood on a tournament court came at 2022 Tokyo. Ranked No.48 at the time, she was forced to pull out of the tournament ahead of her second-round match against Beatriz Haddad Maia due to illness. A few months later, she announced on social media that she was pregnant and expecting the birth of her first child. Osaka gave birth to her daughter Shai in July.

Osaka opted to begin her comeback tour in Australia without Shai by her side. "I felt like the flight would be too long for her," Osaka said. "If I hear her cry I would get really sad and I didn't want to put her through that."

After a few practice sessions in Brisbane, where she was a semifinalist in 2020, Osaka said she's found herself slowly slipping back into competition mode. Now 26, Osaka says she's now better equipped to handle the maelstrom of the tour and seeing it all with new eyes. 

'My goals are very big this year': Osaka discusses her return to the tour

As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And while there's no doubt tennis has missed Naomi Osaka, it was reassuring to hear the feeling was mutual. 

"I feel like I'm more confident with who I am as a person," Osaka told reporters at Media Day. "I never tried to have conversations with other players before, and I think I definitely put a large wall up. Now I find myself interacting with people. It's just really cool. 

"If I take myself out of being a tennis player, just seeing everyone working hard, being in the gym, seeing people change over the years, too, coming back and appreciating that is cool." 

Unsurprisingly, Osaka credits motherhood for her change in mindset. After coming through a dark spell in 2022 when she struggled to find any semblance of joy on the court, Osaka is motivated by her desire to be a good role model for her daughter. 

"I think in the time I had away, I appreciated the sport a lot more," Osaka said. "After giving birth, I understood how physical and how much work it takes to get there."

"I learned to love my body a lot more and I think it's special that you can go through all that and still bounce back."

- Naomi Osaka

Osaka described childbirth as the most painful experience of her life. She detailed the complications and anxieties in an interview with In Style magazine. But coming through the experience has given Osaka a newfound respect for her body,  and faith that her physicality won't hold her back.

"In the first couple of months I was definitely nervous because I wasn't in my own body," Osaka said. "I was driving the wrong car, if that makes sense. Slowly, step by step we put in so much work and got myself to where I am now."

"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't feel ready. I didn't want to disappoint the people who were excited for me to come back and I didn't want to disappoint myself."

Osaka is quietly confident in her progress but openly curious about what that means in competition. She has won the practice sets she's played with her hitting partners, but is unsure how it will all hold up under match conditions.

"I would say I'm more excited than nervous, but with some drops of nervousness just because I haven't played a match in what feels like forever," Osaka said. 

"Obviously I want to play well. I don't have the expectation of winning. I just want to play well because I don't know what my level is."

Osaka will face No.84 Korpatsch for the first time in her Brisbane opener. The 28-year-old German finished last season with a run to her first WTA title in Cluj-Napoca. The winner of that match will face three-time Brisbane champion Karolina Pliskova in the second round.