Naomi Osaka reveals welcoming Shai has had a positive impact on her mental health as the Japanese hopes to return to her best tennis this year and soon become a legitimate Grand Slam contender again.
After opening up publicly about her mental health battle, Osaka started playing less and it was clear that she wasn't in the best place to go out and compete. In 2023 January, Osaka announced she was pregnant with her first child and confirmed she would miss the entire 2023 season.
Out of action for 16 months, 26-year-old Osaka finally took to the court again in the first week of the 2024 season in Brisbane. While Osaka didn't make deep runs in Australia, at least there was the desire and hunger for the Japanese to do well.
"Having my daughter Shai has strengthened my mind a lot and made me appreciate a lot of different things," Osaka told BNN Bloomberg.
"The Australia trip was hard as it was my first trip without her. I also felt a bit sad at the end as I didn’t think I made the time worth it. Being away from her, I wish I could have done better.
"But I feel that having her was the biggest blessing in my life. It’s incredible to see her grow every day and learn. Hopefully she’ll be happy to have me as a mum."
Osaka on her Australian Open, future Slam aspirations
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, started her post-pregnancy comeback by beating Tamara Korpatsch but then lost to Karolina Pliskova despite being up by a set in the Brisbane round-of-16. Then, Osaka had brutal luck with her Australian Open draw, drawing Caroline Garcia and losing 4-6 6-7 (2) to the 2022 WTA Finals champion.
While going 1-2 in Australia wasn't Osaka's goal, she was at least happy that she was competitive against pretty good names like former world No. 1 Pliskova and former world No. 4 Garcia.
"Obviously, I would’ve wanted to do better in Australia," Osaka admitted.
"But I played really great players. I guess going into those tournaments I didn’t want to be losing 6-0. So, I accomplished one of my goals already.
"But I think I’m at a pretty good level. Hopefully I’m able to pull off some scrappy wins and get the confidence to beat the players I want to beat. Right now, I have to keep playing matches."
For the past year, Osaka has been pretty open about her hope to return to winning Grand Slams and being one of the best players in her post-pregnancy comeback. After losing to Danielle Collins in the Abu Dhabi first round last week, Osaka is a bit off to a rough start to her comeback as she is now 1-3 in 2024.
However, Osaka remains patient and acknowledges that instantly returning to her best tennis won't happen. When asked if she thinks about winning Grand Slams and returning to the top-10, Osaka admitted she hopes that to happen in mid-2024 or at least sometimes around the US Open.
"I do think about it. I often wonder how long it’ll take me to get to the level I want to be at. My shots are there. It’s more decision-making during the matches," Osaka said.
"It might take some time. The worst result would be getting there during the US Open [which starts in late August] and the best result would be to get there around the French Open and Wimbledon."
Inspired by Serena Williams, Osaka to play into her 30s
Just two years ago, it seemed like Osaka could retire very early from pro tennis as the Japanese was clearly struggling with her motivation and her joy and passion for the game appeared to be lost. But the forced break from tennis changed that as it helped Osaka realize how much she actually loves the sport and that she absolutely wants to continue playing and achieve more success.
When asked about the chances of her playing in her 30s, Osaka revealed she believes that will happen. When revealing that, Osaka admitted she is drawing inspiration from idol Serena Williams in that aspect, who played her last pro tennis match just before her 41st birthday.
Also, Williams welcomed her first child in 2017 - returned to tennis the following year - and played a couple of more seasons at a high level.
"I see myself playing into my 30s. I want to take it for however long I can. I was able to play Serena [Williams] when I was coming up — that was priceless. Hopefully I’m able to play as long as I can so another kid coming up can play me," Osaka said.
Meanwhile, Osaka is set to compete at the opening WTA 1000 tournament of the year in Doha, which she entered using a protected ranking. Unfortunately for Osaka, she again didn't have much luck with the draw as she is set to face Garcia for the second time in a month.
If Osaka beats Garcia, she will kick off her Doha campaign in quite some style. But if Osaka loses to Garcia, that would push Osaka's losing streak to four matches and certainly wouldn't be a good thing for the Japanese's confidence.