Health

Naomi Osaka returns, ready or not

Osaka, who
had not played a competitive tennis match since losing in the third round of the
US Open to the world’s 73rd-ranked player, was getting a jump on the start of
2022 in Melbourne, Australia, after her second lengthy break from the game in
seven months. And who could blame her?

In the 10
months since she won her fourth Grand Slam title, in Australia, her destiny had
gone from can’t-miss superstardom to something far more concerning.

As last
winter closed, Osaka was the dominant figure in her sport and the world’s
highest paid female athlete at just 23 years old, as well as a respected voice
on social justice issues. And then she became something else entirely.

Her game
began to come apart in the early spring, especially as the competition moved to
clay, where she has never been comfortable. A confrontation with French Open
officials over her refusal to appear at mandatory postmatch news conferences
led to her withdrawal from the tournament. She went public with her yearslong
battle with depression, took two months off and then returned at the Tokyo
Olympics, where she lit the torch but lost in the third round amid relentless
pressure to excel.

Then came
the upset in the US Open, where she was a favorite to successfully defend her
title but exited with a tearful admission that playing tennis no longer made
her happy, if it ever did. Suddenly, that moment of triumph at the 2020 US Open
felt ominous: After prevailing in three sets, she barely smiled and instead lay
in the center of the court, staring at the dark sky.

“It was just
like an extreme buildup, and you just happened to see it all release last
year,” a rusty Osaka said this month, after her first tune-up match in
Melbourne, a messy three-set win against Alizé Cornet.

Osaka grew
sharper, and calmer, in her next two matches, both straight-set wins, and then
pulled out of the warm-up tournament before her semifinal, saying her body was
in shock after playing three matches in five days following a layoff that she
had expected to last much longer.

“I actually
really thought I wasn’t going to play for most of this year,” she said. “I was
feeling kind of like I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I’m pretty
sure a lot of people can relate to that.”

In some
ways, relating to Osaka, who plays Madison Brengle in the second round at the
Australian Open on Wednesday, has never been easier. Her story — though no one
knows how it will end — is a cautionary tale for anyone pursuing a dream that
may not be her own or for anyone who needs to press the pause button,
regardless of the consequences.

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Despite her
vast wealth and early success, or perhaps because of them, she has never seemed
more vulnerable. And yet there will always be a remove with Osaka, who can be
painfully shy, a kind of wall that even people who have been close to her have
struggled to break through. That has become more difficult as her persona has
grown, because so have the barriers and the team of gatekeepers surrounding her
as the pressures of success and fame mount.

“In some
ways, this all can be easier with a more outgoing person,” said Harold Solomon,
a former professional who coached Osaka when she was a teenager. “Naomi is
quiet and introspective. I’m not sure if she was really clear of what all of
this would mean.”

Now, back in
Australia, the place where things last appeared right in her world, is she
ready for the crucible? Even if she prevails, in matches, in the biggest
tournaments, is that an appropriate way to measure the success and well-being
of someone who just four months ago could not find joy on a tennis court? Is
this really the life Osaka wants?

Osaka, a
self-described introvert, rarely grants interviews. She speaks in tightly
controlled settings or postmatch news conferences during tournaments, where she
has said she would prefer not to appear. (It’s also possible that her
complaints about news conferences were merely a vessel for her larger
complaints about the life of a pro tennis player.)

Her parents,
including her father, Leonard Francois, who pushed his daughters to pursue
tennis, following the blueprint of Richard Williams, no longer speak publicly.
Osaka declined through her representatives to be interviewed for this article.
Behind microphones, she communicates deliberately, in clipped phrases that are
turned over and over. When she has emoted, it has usually been on Instagram or
Twitter.

Sascha
Bajin, who coached Osaka to her first two Grand Slam titles, at the 2018 US
Open and the 2019 Australian Open, said he initially had to figure out how to
get her to trust him enough to participate in the most basic communication.

“Naomi was
so shy in the beginning, she didn’t even talk,” he said in a recent interview.
Bajin noticed that she liked anime. So he began watching it, and learning about
it, then made casual references to it before or after practice, which began to
draw her out. “She saw that I showed interest in something that interested her.
With Naomi, it takes trust and belief.”

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Never
celebrated winning points or games.

There is a
very basic and fair question to ask when considering Osaka’s career: Does she
actually like tennis? Did she ever?

“Yeaahhh?”
Solomon said in a singsong, the way people intonate when they are not quite
convinced of what they are saying.

Solomon was
one of several South Florida coaches who shared his services at little or no
cost to help Francois fulfill his dream of producing the next iteration of
Venus and Serena Williams.

Mari, who is
18 months older than Naomi and as free with her emotions as Naomi is bottled
up, initially had more drive to achieve stardom, Solomon and the other coaches
said. She ultimately lacked the size, speed and power of her younger sister,
who at 5 feet, 11 inches tall is about a half-foot taller. Mari Osaka’s singles
ranking peaked at 280 in 2018. She retired last year.

Her younger
sister’s motivations were more of a mystery.

Bill Adams,
who coached the girls when the family first moved to Florida from New York in
2006, said Naomi Osaka was tough to read even as a 10-year-old. She never
refused to do a drill or “made a face,” Adams said, but she never celebrated
good shots or winning points or games. A dozen years later, Adams ran into
Osaka at the Evert Tennis Academy after she won the Indian Wells Masters, the
first significant title of her career.

“I told her
I was pleased because I didn’t think you really liked it in the beginning,”
Adams said.

For years,
the coaches said, beating her older sister was Osaka’s primary motivation. Once
that became possible, her dreams expanded. Patrick Tauma, who coached the Osaka
girls when Naomi was in her midteens, said he once asked her what she dreamed
of accomplishing on the tennis court. She told him it was to beat Serena
Williams in the final of the U.S. Open.

She
accomplished that in 2018, but the victory was somewhat tarnished by Williams’
meltdown amid confrontations with the chair umpire, who penalized her for
receiving coaching during the match. Osaka was in tears during the trophy
ceremony.

“I feel like
she lost her purpose,” Tauma said. “She is so young. It all went so fast for
her.”

Osaka’s
relationship with Solomon, who coached her when she was 16, was less
harmonious. It ended not long after he questioned her definition of working
hard, every day. He said the dynamic of their relationship was backward, with
the coach pulling the student instead of the other way around.

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“I’m not
saying it wasn’t there at times, but to bring out the full potential, you need
to do that on a consistent basis,” Solomon said. “She was young; I was maybe
too impatient, but I’m not going to spend time on the court with you if you are
not willing to do that.”

Work, wins and
then a crash.

Clearly,
Osaka figured out how to work hard consistently enough to win four Grand Slam
titles, but eventually winning offered relief rather than happiness or
fulfillment, despite the money, fame and platform that it also gave her.

Did she
understand everything that would come with her success on the court, Tauma
wondered — the heat of the spotlight, the obligations to sponsors, the weight
of being a symbol of a new, more multicultural and open Japan?

“She just
wants to be a tennis player,” Tauma said. “Now she is a money machine. All
these people working around her like a company. She feels like I am not a
player anymore.”

In the fall,
he reached out to Osaka’s team and offered to spend a little time on the court
with her as a way of getting back to her roots and remembering the good things
about the game and “the smell of when you were starving.” Tauma never heard
back.

At the time,
Osaka was busy with things she did not get to do growing up, like driving from
her home in Los Angeles to the Bay Area to have sleepovers.

“I didn’t
really have that many friends, so I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she said.

Eventually,
her desire to be on the court once more returned. She texted her coach and
trainer and asked if they would be willing to work with her again. During her
first practices, she tried to be acutely aware of whether she wanted to be
there, whether she could be fully committed in each moment, because if she did
not, she knew she was wasting everyone’s time.

“I’m not
sure if this is going to work out well,” she said this month in Melbourne.

Osaka was
mostly solid in her first-round win against Camila Osorio of Spain. She said
that she often felt happy starting the year in Australia. Whether she can stay
that way is anyone’s guess.

 

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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