Wednesday, 29th November 2023

Osaka returns to French Open with questions over form, fitness

Naomi Osaka returns to Roland Garros looking to banish the memories of her withdrawal 12 months ago but hampered by concerns over her clay-court form and fitness.

Naomi Osaka (Steven Paston/PA) (PA Archive)

Naomi Osaka returns to Roland Garros looking to banish the memories of her withdrawal 12 months ago but hampered by concerns over her clay-court form and fitness.

The former world number one pulled out of last year’s French Open ahead of the second round, citing mental health issues.

She had been threatened with expulsion and fined by organisers over her refusal to attend press conferences.

Osaka then spent large parts of the remainder of the 2021 season off the court and has struggled this campaign with injury.

The Japanese star withdrew from last week’s Italian Open to rest an Achilles problem and try to regain full fitness for the Grand Slam tournament in Paris, where she will be unseeded at a major for the first time since the 2018 Australian Open.

The 24-year-old has slipped to 38th in the WTA rankings going into Sunday’s start of the French Open but was as low as number 78 in March.

Osaka showed she could still compete for the biggest titles the following week, reaching the Miami Open final — her first on the WTA Tour since the 2021 Australian Open — before losing to world number one Iga Swiatek.

“Only a couple days ago I was celebrating getting back into the top 50 but I don’t take things like that for granted,” the four-time Grand Slam champion said after that defeat.

“I’m a bit more humble now about the opportunities I get. I can take a lot of positives from this.”

Osaka will fancy her chances of a deep run at Roland Garros for the first time in a wide-open women’s draw, with the exception of red-hot favourite Swiatek who is on a 28-match winning streak.

But she has plenty still to prove on clay, having never reached a Tour final on the surface or even made the second week of the French Open.

Osaka’s preparation this time around has been far from ideal and she has played only two matches on the red dirt this season.

She was visibly struggling with the Achilles injury in the second of those against unheralded Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo in Madrid, losing 6-3, 6-1.

“I feel like I couldn’t play the way that I wanted to play like I was limited,” Osaka said.

– ‘Will this make you happy?’ –
When she withdrew from Roland Garros last year, Osaka said she had been suffering from “bouts of depression” since her breakthrough US Open triumph over Serena Williams in the controversial 2018 final.

Osaka said she found press conferences to be akin to “kicking people when they’re down”.

She later skipped Wimbledon before returning to the Olympics, lighting the Olympic cauldron in Japan.

Her decision to temporarily step away from the sport prompted an increase in elite athletes being more open about their mental health.

Four-time Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles missed part of the Tokyo Games to focus on her wellbeing, while English cricketer Ben Stokes also took a break due to mental health problems.

Osaka, the world’s highest-paid sportswoman with a $57 million income last year according to Forbes, now believes she is more content both on and off the court.

“At this stage in my life, I feel very content in my mental health journey. I feel comfortable in who I am and where I have come from,” she told Self magazine earlier this month.

“My main goal used to be winning. Lately, I have tried to ask myself questions like, ‘Will this make you happy?'”

Osaka’s sporting focus will be firmly on the next two months and making a serious dent in the French Open and Wimbledon draws for the first time, with the added bonus of a potential rise back up the rankings.