On December 31, as the final hours of 2021 ticked away, Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter, “I’ve never been so excited for a year to end.”
Osaka, who hadn’t played a competitive tennis match since losing the US Open third round to the No. 73 player in the world, was making a jump at the start of 2022 in Melbourne, Australia, after his second long break from the match. in seven months. And who could blame him.
In the 10 months since winning her fourth Grand Slam title in Australia, her fate has changed from an unmissable superstar to something far more ominous.
At the end of last winter, Osaka was the dominant figure in her sport and the highest paid female athlete in the world at just 23 years old, as well as a respected voice on social justice issues. And then she became something else entirely.
“There was a moment after the French Open where I felt like everyone was judging me,” she said after her first-round victory at the Australian Open on Monday. “It’s a bit weird when you walk into a stadium to play and you’re a bit worried about what everyone’s gaze means.”
Her game began to deteriorate in the early spring, especially as the competition moved to clay, where she was never comfortable. A confrontation with Roland Garros officials over his refusal to appear for the mandatory post-match press conferences led to his withdrawal from the tournament. She went public with her years-long battle with depression, took two months off, then returned to the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the torch but lost in the third round under relentless pressure to excel.
Then came the upset at the US Open, where she was one of the favorites to successfully defend her title, but walked away with a tearful admission that playing tennis didn’t make her any happier, if ever. Suddenly, that moment of triumph at the 2020 US Open felt ominous: After triumphing in three sets, she barely smiled and instead lay back in the center of the court, staring up at the dark sky.
“It was like an extreme build-up, and you saw it all come out last year,” a rusty Osaka said this month, after her first tune-up match in Melbourne, a messy three-set win over Alizé. Horn.
Osaka became sharper and calmer in her next two matches, both wins in straight sets, then pulled out of the warm-up tournament ahead of her semi-final, saying her body was in shock after playing three matches in five days after a layoff that she expected to last much longer.
“I actually really thought I wasn’t going to be playing for most of this year,” she said. “I kind of felt 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, regarding Osaka, who faces Madison Brengle in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, has never been easier. His story – although no one knows how it will end – is a cautionary tale for anyone chasing a dream that may not be theirs, or for anyone who needs to hit the pause button, no matter what. the results.
Despite herself vast wealth and early success, or perhaps because of them, she never seemed more vulnerable. And yet, there will always be a distance with Osaka, who can be painfully shy, a sort of wall that even people who have known her have struggled to cross. This has only become more difficult as his personality has grown, as the barriers and team of guardians around him have increased as the pressures of success and fame have increased.
“In some ways it can all be easier with a more outgoing person,” said Harold Solomon, the former pro who coached Osaka as a teenager. “Naomi is calm and introspective. I don’t know if she was really clear about what all of this would mean.
Now, back in Australia, the place where things last appeared in her world, is she ready for the crucible? Even if it imposes itself, in matches, in the biggest tournaments, is it a good way to measure the success and well-being of someone who, barely four months ago, could not find the joy on a tennis court? Is this really the life Osaka wants?
Osaka, a self-proclaimed introvert, rarely grants interviews. She speaks in tightly controlled settings or at post-match press conferences at tournaments, where she has said she would rather not appear. (It’s also possible that his complaints about press conferences were just a vessel for his larger complaints about the life of a professional tennis player.)
Her parents, including her father, Leonard François, who pushed his daughters to pursue tennis, following Richard Williams’ plan, no longer speak publicly. Osaka declined through her representatives to be interviewed for this article. Behind microphones, she communicates deliberately, in truncated sentences that are constantly turned around. When she’s been emotional, it’s usually on Instagram or Twitter.
Sascha Bajin, who coached Osaka to her first two Grand Slam titles, the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open, said he first had to figure out how to get him to do enough confidence to participate in the most basic communication.
“Naomi was so shy at first, she didn’t even speak,” he said in a recent interview. Bajin remarked that she liked anime. So he started watching it and learning more about it, then made informal references to it before or after practice, which started to appeal to him. “She saw that I was interested in something that interested her. With Naomi, you need confidence and conviction.
Never celebrated winning points or games.
There is a very basic and fair question to ask when considering Osaka’s career: does she really love tennis? Has she ever done it?
” Yeah ? Solomon said in a hymn, the way people muffle when they’re not quite sure of what they’re saying.
Solomon was one of many South Florida trainers who shared his services at little to no cost to help Francis achieve his dream of producing the next iteration of Venus and Serena Williams.
Mari, who is 18 months older than Naomi and as emotionally free as Naomi is bottled up, initially had more of a drive to become famous, Solomon and the other coaches said. She ultimately lacked the height, speed and power of her younger sister, who, at 5ft 11in, is about half a foot taller. Mari Osaka’s singles ranking peaked at 280 in 2018. She retired last year.
Her younger sister’s motives were rather a mystery.
Bill Adams, who coached the girls when the family first moved to Florida from New York in 2006, said Naomi Osaka was hard to read even at age 10. She never refused to do a drill or “make a face,” Adams said, but she never celebrated good shots or winning points or games. A dozen years later, Adams met Osaka at Evert Tennis Academy after winning the Indian Wells Masters, the first major title of his career.
“I told him I was happy because I didn’t think you really liked him at first,” Adams said.
For years, coaches said, beating her older sister was Osaka’s main motivation. Once this became possible, her dreams expanded. Patrick Tauma, who coached the Osaka girls when Naomi was in her mid-teens, 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 US Open final.
She accomplished that in 2018, but the victory was somewhat tarnished by Williams’ collapse amid confrontations with the chair umpire, who penalized her for receiving coaching during the match. During the trophy ceremony, Osaka was in tears.
“I feel like she lost her purpose,” Tauma said. “She is so young. Everything happened so quickly for her.
Osaka’s relationship with Solomon, who trained her when she was 16, was less harmonious. It ended shortly after he questioned his definition of working hard, every day. He said the dynamic of their relationship was backwards, with the coach pulling the student instead of the other way around.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t there sometimes, but to bring out the full potential you have to do it consistently,” Solomon said. “She was young, maybe I was too impatient, but I’m not going to spend time on the pitch with you if you don’t want to.”
Work, wins, then crash.
Obviously, Osaka figured out how to work hard consistently enough to win four Grand Slam titles, but ultimately winning offered relief rather than happiness or fulfillment, despite the money, fame, and platform it also gave him.
Did she understand all that would come with her success on the pitch, Tauma wondered – the heat of the spotlight, the obligations to sponsors, the weight of being the symbol of a new, more multicultural and open Japan?
“She just wants to be a tennis player,” Tauma said. “Now she’s a slot machine. All these people working around her like a business. She feels like I’m not a gamer anymore.
In the fall, he contacted the Osaka team and offered to spend some time on the pitch with them to get back to their roots and remember the good things about the game and “the smell when you were starving”. Tauma never got an answer.
At the time, Osaka was busy with things she couldn’t do growing up, like driving from her home in Los Angeles to the Bay Area to spend the night.
“I didn’t really have a lot of friends, so I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she said.
Eventually his desire to be on the court again returned. She texted her coach and trainer and asked if they would be willing to work with her again. “I was just sitting in my house thinking, what do I want to do in the future?” she said. During her first practices, she tried to be very aware of whether she wanted to be there, whether she could fully engage in every moment, because if she didn’t, she knew she was wasting time. from everyone.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work well,” she said this month in Melbourne.
Osaka was especially solid in her first-round win over Colombia’s Camila Osorio. She said she often felt happy to start the year in Australia. Whether she can stay like that is anyone’s guess.