By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Thursday, September 7, 2023
NEW YORK—Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Time away from tennis has pumped passion Naomi Osaka has for the sport infusing her with fresh perspective ahead of her return.
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Former world No. 1 Osaka plans to launch her major comeback at the 2024 Australian Open and is aiming to play a full schedule, at least in the early stages of 2024, because “I don’t know how I’ll do.”
“For me personally, it really raised my love for the sport,” Osaka said of her time away from tennis. “It made me realize, like, I’m not going to play forever. I have to embrace the times. I’ve been playing tennis since I was three.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can predict what I’ll do. I never am able to do that, but it definitely made me appreciate a lot of things that I took for granted.”
The 25-year-old Osaka gave birth to a baby girl, named Shai, on July 7th. Baby Shai is Naomi’s first child with her long-time partner, rapper Cordae.
Osaka return to the US Open on Wednesday, joining Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps, USTA chairman of the board and president Dr. Brian Hainline and Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, in a US Open forum on mental health and sport.
The four-time Grand Slam champion, who has candidly discussed her battle with depression and mental illness in the past, said she felt deep loneliness at times during her pregnancy. Osaka credited her family, friends and support team with helping her cope with those feelings of isolation.
“For me, I actually felt lonely during my pregnancy. Just because I felt like I wasn’t able to do a lot of things that I was normally able to do,” Osaka said. “I think it kind of goes back into, like, asking for help, too, for me.
“I learned a lot. Like, normally I’m thinking, like, I’m going to be an independent woman, and I’m not going to ask anyone for help and stuff like that. Just whenever something happens, just take it on the chin.”
Allowing herself to feel vulnerable and ask for help, Osaka said, was an essential step to strengthening her mental health during pregnancy.
“But then I got to a place where I needed to ask for help, and I wanted to, like, reach out and talk to people,” Osaka said. “I think, like, most of the time for me, like, I have a really good group of people around me, and they want to help, but I just never asked.
“So I think it was just the process of asking and the process of, like, I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if it was pride or something, that made me not ask for help and made me feel like I was isolated. I’m really happy the people around me just wanted me to ask for help.”
Osaka has spent some time hitting with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf during her break. When Osaka returns to the pro circuit in January, she will join several moms back on the WTA Tour, including Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Taylor Townsend and fellow former No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who announced her plans for a January comeback.
Two-time US Open champion Osaka said watching Venus Williams and Serena Williams play last year inspired her to ponder the prospect of playing pro tennis at age 40 and beyond.
“It’s definitely been really interesting…The whole process, it felt long and short at the same time,” Osaka said of her absence. “When I stepped away kind of, it was Tokyo, that was the last tournament I played. I just remember watching the Australian Open and being very devastated, because I’ve never missed an Australian Open.
“I was just thinking, okay, like, when I was watching, like, Serena and Venus, I was thinking, ah, I probably no way will ever play at their age, but sitting here, I’m like, you know what? I might do that actually.”
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The major epiphany Osaka has gained from motherhood and the sabbatical from the sport has been profound: she hopes to spread a message of love on social media and in her comeback.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Osaka said. “Like, even sitting here I’m learning so much, but I just want to say, like, I think if anything, on my social media, I want to push everyone to, like, love themselves.
“I think that’s the core of everything. If you love yourself, then other people will most likely love you, and you’ll, like, radiate a really good energy.”
Photo credit: Taylor Hill/Getty