STUTTGART, Germany - World No.1 Naomi Osaka's biggest goal during the clay season is simple: don't get injured. The top seed at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix is set to begin her clay season in Stuttgart while trying to strike the fine balance between tempered expectation and ambition.
Osaka has been a hardcourt menace throughout her career, as evidenced by her sweep of the two hardcourt majors, at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open, and her first career-title coming at 2018 Indian Wells. But Osaka knows she has much to prove on the tour's softer surfaces of clay and grass.
"I can't go into a tournament thinking that I just want to coast it out, but at the same time I don't want to overhype myself and say I'm going to win this tournament because there are a lot of clay experts and I'm not one of them," Osaka told reporters at WTA All Access Hour in Stuttgart.
"Every other court or [surface] I have more experience than I have on clay because honestly, every time I come here I get injured. I'm hoping that won't happen this year, but the last two times it's been rough. Every clay season I missed out on at least one tournament, so honestly, my main goal is to not get injured and just ride it up until French Open."
Osaka's career main draw record on clay is 9-11 (45.0%), compared to her 73-45 (61.9%) record on hardcourts. She is 10-7 on grass (58.8%). The silver lining for the 21-year-old is she has just 200 points to defend during the clay season. In contrast, No.2 Simona Halep has 2,900 points to defend.
Despite her historical record on the terre battue, Osaka says she believes she has the game to be successful on the surface. After all, she has seen power players like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, and Madison Keys pound their way to titles.
It's just a matter of experience.
"For sure, I feel like the way that I play is very open," Osaka said. "It's not just for one surface.
"I always thought even though I lost in the third round consistently at the French Open, I always played good players and they always went far. I do think I have chances. It's just knowing what shot to hit at a specific moment is real important for me."
While most power players cite movement to be the toughest adjustment on clay, Osaka says for her, it's about getting a clean strike.
"I guess the bounces are different and you have to swing on the ball differently," she said. "For me, it's a little bit different because I can't hit as flat and you have to change the way you spin the ball. It's a little bit annoying, but I've been practicing and hopefully the practice shows in the results."
The last time Osaka was in Stuttgart was just two years ago in 2017. Then ranked No.46, she came through qualifying and took No.7 Johanna Konta to three sets before losing in the first round, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-1. Now she returns as a two-time major champion and World No.1, seeking her first main draw win at the Porsche Arena.
"I'm honestly just focusing on the round I have to play next, not really anything beyond that because I don't have the best record here," Osaka said. "I'm just coming into this tournament hoping to have a lot of fun and I kind of want to experience the German fans because everyone seems cool.
"The last time I was here I was kind of a nobody. I'm just here for a good time," she said with a grin.
Osaka's World No.1 ranking is in play in Stuttgart, and her quest to extend her reign at the top was bolstered after No.2 Halep, who ranks at No.l in the WTA Insider Clay Court Power Rankings, was forced to withdraw on Tuesday due to a left hip injury sustained at Fed Cup.
"I hope she gets better," Osaka said. "I think it affects the tournament a lot because she's a really great clay court player, everyone knows it.
"Personally, it affects me because she was really close [to catching me]. Phew! I feel like I dodged a bullet there."
With Halep's withdrawal, Osaka can secure No.1 by winning her opening round match against either Hsieh Su-Wei, who beat her at the Miami Open, or Wang Qiang. Otherwise, World No.3 Petra Kvitova can overtake her by winning the Stuttgart title.