Opinion: Naomi Osaka's 'optimistic' return to tennis has been overshadowed by Djokovic drama


The drama surrounding Novak Djokovic’s tussle with the Australian government has sucked up every last bit of oxygen from the start of the new tennis season.

But when the Australian Open begins Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.), at least some attention will turn to a player that nobody was quite sure would be there this year, albeit for a much different reason.

Last we saw of Naomi Osaka, she had left the U.S. Open last September in tears , noncommittal about when – or even if – she would play tennis again.

After a year that began with her fourth Grand Slam title and so much promise, Osaka’s 2021 season turned into a disaster as she struggled with mental health issues, her form on the tennis court and ultimately her desire to play the game. In her press conference following a third-round loss to Leylah Fernandez, Osaka made the stunning announcement that she was taking an indefinite break from the game.

"So basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I'm trying to figure out what I want to do and honestly I don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match," she said before flashing two thumbs up and walking into a world of uncertainty about her professional future.

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But Osaka, who is still just 24 years old, has indeed made it back to the tour. And from all indications, she used the time off to hit the reset button and has arrived in Australia in a great place mentally and emotionally as she tries to defend her title.

"I only really have one major goal this year and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that," Osaka said after one of the three matches she played in a warm-up event prior to the Australian Open. "I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun and I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost I tried as hard as I could … I just feel like for me, I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that and I just need to like find a way to enjoy the game again because that’s the reason I was playing in the first place."
Osaka speaks at a press conference on Saturday ahead of the Australian Open. Simon Baker, AP

Despite Osaka’s track record of being the world's best hard court player when she’s at the top of her game, it would be unfair to put a lot of expectations on her this time around. Since last year’s Australian Open, Osaka hasn’t made the final of any tournament and has only logged seven matches in the past five months.

Because her ranking has dropped to No. 14, Osaka now faces a tougher draw, with a strong likelihood of facing No. 1 Ash Barty in the fourth round – if she can even get there.

In three matches before the Australian Open, Osaka's body language was good but it was hard to get a read on her form with stretches of good play followed by moments of rust and inconsistency. She withdrew before the semifinal, citing the wear and tear of playing three matches in a row after such a long layoff.

But in the big picture, none of that really matters. By the time she crashed out of the U.S. Open, it had become uncomfortable to watch Osaka play a sport that was causing her so much pain. If we take her at face value, she is back solely because this is where she wants to be.

"The approach I’m taking on this Slam is a bit different from all the other ones," she said. "(I’m) just trying to have fun with my team and knowing that there’s a lot of players that would love to be in the position I’m in right now because being in the main draw of a Slam is definitely a goal (for a lot of players), so just taking every day one day at a time."
Osaka plays a backhand during a practice session in Melbourne. Graham Denholm, Getty Images

There’s some irony in Osaka’s return flying under the radar at this tournament while all the attention has all been focused on another player’s off-court drama – Djokovic won't play in the Australian Open after his deportation appeal Sunday. At last year’s French Open, Osaka unintentionally became the biggest story in sports when she announced she would not fulfill her media obligations because it was not good for her mental health.

After a strong rebuke from the four Grand Slam tournaments, who put out a statement in unison threatening her with penalties — "We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement," they wrote — Osaka withdrew from the French Open before her third-round match and revealed that she had suffered from bouts of depression since her breakthrough win at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Osaka resurfaced at the Tokyo Olympics, where she had the honor of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony as the most prominent Japanese athlete at the Games. But another disappointing performance in a pressure-packed moment, losing in the third round to Market Vondrousova, only made things that much worse.

After the U.S. Open, it was clear something needed to change. In November, she posted a picture of herself back on a tennis court for the first time and gathered her coaching team back together to begin preparing for 2022.

"I probably traumatized them last year," she said. "Honestly, there was a lot of things that were happening that I wasn’t talking to them about so it was kind of unfair to them and I really appreciate them for sticking with me because I wouldn’t want to be in my team last year. There was a lot. So yeah, I just really wanted to tell them that I was grateful and if they still want to work together then that would be amazing if they could come over and we could all just like hang out and hit balls and stuff."

It’s hard to know what any of this portends for the next phase of her career, but Osaka has appeared relaxed, happy and quite talkative in her press conferences so far in Australia. Mental health is such a tricky, delicate and ever-evolving topic, and none of us really know what triggered her downward spiral last year when it appeared like she was on the verge of dominating the sport.
Osaka during a practice session in Melbourne on Friday. Daniel Pockett, Getty Images

Regardless of any other struggles in her life, it seemed from the outside like Osaka had reached a place where she couldn’t put losing a tennis match in proper perspective. Her press conference issues at the French Open may well have sprung from disappointing results during the European clay court swing and not wanting to be asked over and over again why she hasn’t yet figured out that surface.

And yet, playing so sporadically after that incident didn’t do her game any favors. It’s almost impossible to accomplish the things Osaka wants to accomplish in the sport as a part-time player, especially when there are so many capable opponents who come to the Grand Slams in peak form because they grind it out on tour week after week.

"I feel like for me it was just like an extreme build-up, and you just happened to see it all release last year," she said. "I don’t really feel the same way (now). I feel like everyone has their moments, and that’s what makes you human. But I’m going into this year a bit more optimistic."

If that optimism translates into Osaka playing tennis without the weight of the world on her shoulders and understanding that losing is just part of the process, we won’t have to worry about her running away from the sport without fulfilling her potential. Regardless of what else happens in Australia over the next two weeks, tennis is better with Osaka playing it. Hopefully she’ll leave feeling the same way.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Naomi Osaka's 'optimistic' return to tennis has been overshadowed by Djokovic drama

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