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Osaka “feeling the nostalgia again” in AO return

  • Matt Trollope

Examining Naomi Osaka’s credentials as she returns to the Australian Open, you could easily be seduced into considering her as one of the favourites.

Entering the prime of her career at age 26, she will play a tournament she has already won twice, something only Victoria Azarenka can say among the 127 other women competitors.

DRAW: Australian Open 2024 women's singles

Osaka’s win-loss record of 24-5 in Melbourne – a strike rate of almost 83 per cent – is the best of any woman in the field. She is undefeated at Rod Laver Arena in eight matches, last tasting defeat on the tournament’s premier court against Coco Gauff in 2020.

Among this year’s field, only world No.1 Iga Swiatek owns as many major titles, but three of those have come on clay. Osaka thrives on hard courts, where she won all four of hers.

Her power electrifying, her serve elite, and her on-court presence undeniable, Osaka is a true great of the game. On paper at least, she should be a major threat in Melbourne.

The only caveat? She’s just six months removed from having a baby, and has barely played in 16 months.

Osaka is one of three former AO champions and world No.1s making their way back to the tour, giving Australian Open 2024 a delightful extra shot of star power, and – if possible – an even deeper pool of formidable talent.

But while Angelique Kerber has been cautious when discussing her expectations, and Caroline Wozniacki learned, after a US Open fourth-round loss to Gauff, that she still had work to do, Osaka is speaking confidently ahead of her eighth campaign at Melbourne Park.

“My immediate thought was, okay, this is tough, but I definitely think I can achieve what I want to achieve,” she said after drawing 16th seed Caroline Garcia in round one.

“Hopefully during the match I'm able to, I guess, have things go my way.

“In a weird way I'm glad I'm playing a seed so that hopefully, if I get through that, the next match won't be as difficult.

“Playing in Brisbane (last week) was a really good test. I honestly think that both of my matches were a higher level than the rankings indicate. I definitely think my match against Pliskova was a really high level.”

That resulted in a three-set second-round loss, but given Osaka had only given birth to daughter Shai in July and had not played a tournament since Tokyo in September 2022, it was an impressive re-entry to tennis.

Another major champion, Sam Stosur, recently told that “if she came out and won AO, I think that would be incredible”.

But there is a precedent: at the same age, Kim Clijsters returned as a mother and won the US Open in just her third tournament back. 

Like Clijsters, who thrived in New York, Osaka loves Melbourne – she has the strongest record here of the four Slams – and immediately felt a sense of familiarity upon returning to the site.

“It's been really good [to be back]. I've been able to hit with a couple players and I guess, feel the nostalgia again,” she said.

“It's minor, but I love the comfort of it. I guess just going into the locker room and having the same locker as before. I think little things like that really make me happy. 

“Just being able to hit on Rod Laver [Arena], I guess, look up at the sky and just realise I've been able to win twice here. 

“I would love to do it again.”

Interestingly, one of those players she hit with was Amanda Anisimova, the last player to beat Osaka here, from two match points down, in the third round of AO 2022.

And continuing the nostalgic theme, it’s another meeting with Garcia, whom she beat at Rod Laver Arena in the second round en route to the title in 2021.

Osaka feels she appreciates moments like these more now in the second stage of her career.

This gratitude, matched with her innate confidence and impressive CV, could prove a potent combination as she looks to experience those highs once more.

Naomi Osaka celebrates her Australian Open 2021 title

“I've taken a lot of breaks throughout the years… [but] I think this one was the one that finally clicked in my head. I think I realised, being an athlete, that time is really precious,” she explained.

“[Before] I felt like I could kind of roll back into it whenever I needed to.

“I think overall I'm just happy to be here because I remember last year I was watching people playing Australian Open, and I couldn't participate myself.

“I do think of all the amazing memories that I've had. I also think in my head, who am I to just come back in the second tournament and expect so much from myself, especially against the best players in the world?

“I now think to myself that I have to give myself a lot of time and patience.”