Naomi Osaka has special message for Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova & Rafael Nadal

Osaka is playing the tennis of her life on clay and she names some players who have played a part in that.

by Dzevad Mesic
Naomi Osaka has special message for Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova & Rafael Nadal
© Getty Images Sport - Matthew Stockman

Naomi Osaka seems to be playing the clay tennis of her life and she admits tennis icons such as Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal have all played a little part in it. 

Before Rome, Osaka was 1-2 on clay this spring. But since the start of Rome, Osaka has improved her clay record to 4-2 and she has also managed to accomplish something for the first time - to beat a top-20 player on the slowest tennis surface.

When Osaka beat world No. 20 Marta Kostyuk 6-3 6-2 in the Rome second round on Thursday, it was the first-ever clay win over a top-20 player for the four-time Grand Slam champion. Two days later, Osaka clinched her second clay victory over a top-20 player after ousting 11th-ranked Daria Kasatkina 6-3 6-3. 

After clinching back-to-back clay wins over top-20 players, Osaka was asked if there was a connection being away "from the game and growing and learning and what's happening now for you, which is unprecedented?" Osaka then acknowledged that she has done a lot of hard work over the last few months but also admitted that watching a lot of tennis lately has had a positive impact on her.

"It's not unprecedented (smiling). I'm very grateful to be back. I'm very grateful to be healthy because I know how much hard work it took for me to be here," Osaka said.

"Also I am just very inspired by the players that I'm watching now. I'm watching a lot of tennis. I wish with my whole heart to be where they are, so I'm doing whatever it takes. I don't know. I feel like I'm just clawing my way back to hopefully where I think I belong."

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka© Getty Images Sport - Dan Istitene

Osaka on learning something from watching Nadal on clay

After revealing at the start of Rome that she was watching a lot of clay tennis, Osaka also started putting more weight on her shots and so far that has been paying off at Foro Italico. When explaining what led to her going more for heavier balls than flatter shots, the 26-year-old Japanese revealed that she realized some things by watching Nadal on clay. 

"It's definitely more mental. I could always do it. I'm a little impatient. Obviously when you hit a heavier ball, for me, I feel like I think about a moon ball. It didn't really click until I was watching Nadal play and seeing how he actually accelerates so much when he's doing that, knowing that a heavier ball sometimes is more difficult than a flatter shot. Yeah, I feel like I just did a lot of homework," Osaka explained.

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka© Getty Images Sport - Dan Istitene

Osaka on if she is watching tapes of Williams, Sharapova

Osaka, who plays a very big and powerful game, has enjoyed major success on hard very early in her career but she has yet to win a title on clay. 

Williams, who also had a game tailor-made for faster surfaces, managed to quickly figure out how to play on clay well as she won her first French Open title in 2002. 

But when it comes to Sharapova, she mightily struggled on clay in her first couple of seasons and some thought the Russian would never be a good clay court player. But then, Sharapova did something pretty miraculous as she figured out how to play on clay - won the French Open in 2012 and 2014 - and the French Open ended up being the Slam where she enjoyed the most success.

Asked if she was watching tapes of Williams and Sharapova, Osaka admitted that she used to do regularly in the past. Also, Osaka said it was inspiring to see fellow big hitters Williams and Sharapova learn how to also be effective and great on clay.

"You know there's like a hallway to the gym that has all the champions. I see Serena and Sharapova on there. It makes me very inspired knowing that hard-hitters can play well on clay. Of course, when I was younger, I watched both of them extensively," Osaka said.

"But currently I didn't rewind any Serena tapes 'cause I still feel really sad that she's not here. Especially since Rafa is doing his last, like, hurrah, it makes me feel a bit more sad. Honestly, you brought up a good point, so I'll have some more homework today."

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams © Getty Images Sport - Al Bello

For the first time since 2019, Osaka has won three consecutive clay matches. And Osaka's Rome form has led to some calling her "Clayomi."

"Please don't (laughter). Please. I think I need more clay credentials for that. But I'm happy that they're happy, so..." Osaka said.

For a place in the Rome quarterfinal, Osaka will battle against 2024 Australian Open runner-up Zheng Qinwen.

Naomi Osaka Serena Williams Rafael Nadal