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Australian Open: A comeback Slam for Naomi Osaka?

The four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka is back for the Australian Open after a long layoff from international tennis

Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021.
Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021. (Reuters)

This time, Naomi Osaka walked on to the court with the headphones slightly askew. The famously introverted tennis star wanted to take in all the sounds and sights as she walked the familiar path from locker room to centre court. In September 2022, after a surprising first-round exit from the US Open, Osaka had stepped away from the game that she had once loved—and dominated—for a little while. But the fans stayed. Ready when you are.

They welcomed her back with resounding support as she returned from a 15-month hiatus from the sport on 1 January at the Brisbane International. Old champion, new mom. She endured a difficult pregnancy and childbirth before her daughter Shai was born on 7 July, last year. Within six months, after a particularly gruelling pre-season of training, the Japanese player returned to the court. 

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“The last couple of years that I played before I had my daughter, I didn't return as much love as I was given,” the 26-year-old said during her on-court interview in Brisbane. “So, I really feel like that's what I want to do in this chapter. I just really appreciate people coming out and cheering for me.”

In her comeback match, Osaka defeated Tamara Korpatsch 6-3, 7-6 (9) in the first round. The consistency will come with time, but Osaka was crushing the ball like she always did. Osaka doesn’t have the smoothest of techniques, but the split-second down-to-up whip is what generates the power, speed and top-spin. An aggressive baseliner, Osaka’s forehands have regularly clocked 100mph, which is not a norm on the women’s tour. Against Korpatsch, she unveiled the full range of groundstrokes to make a winning return. 

She lost the closest of matches to Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7, 4-6 in the second round. One of the best servers on the tour, Osaka recorded a menacing 14 aces during the match. But a competition rusty Osaka, converted only two of the 12 break point opportunities she created.

“I think for me, even stepping on the court is a personal win because a couple of weeks ago I was even doubting if I could play,” she said. “I guess these two matches that I've had kind of prove to me that I am doing okay, and the year is just going to get better for me.”

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2024 began with a wave of nostalgia as former champions Osaka, Rafael Nadal and Angelique Kerber returned to court. Kerber, like Osaka, is returning after childbirth. But Nadal’s comeback lasted only one tournament, and the Spaniard has pulled out of the year’s first major, Australian Open 2024, which begins on Monday, 14 January, due to a muscle tear. Last year, Nadal had hinted that 2024 could be his last year on tour, but the latest injury could spoil plans of a fairytale farewell. The Spaniard has been knocked down by injuries regularly through his career. But at 37, there are questions of how many comebacks he has left in him.

It could also be the last trip Down Under for former World No. 1 Andy Murray. The Brit has never been the same since returning from hip resurfacing surgery in 2019. The man with the metal hip and iron heart has sent occasional reminders of the champion he was, fighting lost causes and turning them into winning ones. 

Remember the 4-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 7-5 win over local favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis in the Australian Open second round last year? As exhilarating as that was, it wasn’t enough for Murray. Not for someone who has won three Grand Slam titles and competed in the greatest era of men’s tennis.

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“If I was in a situation like I was at the end of last year, then I probably wouldn't go again,” Murray, who ended 2023 with two wins in the last five events of the year, told BBC. “We'll see how the year goes, see how the body holds up. If things are going well, I'd love to keep going. But if they're not, and I'm not enjoying it, it could be the last year, yes.”

Kerber, who last played at Wimbledon 2022, gave birth to a baby girl, Liana, in February 2023. The 2016 Australian Open champion made a comeback at the United Cup, which is an 18-nation mixed-team event. For Kerber, the highlight of the United Cup, considered more of an exhibition tournament, was a hard-fought 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 win over Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic in the semi-final.

Kerber and Osaka were two, out of four, players who had stopped Serena Williams in her quest for a record 24th singles Grand Slam title—which would have made her the most successful player in the Open Era—after returning from childbirth. It was Williams’ comeback that had prompted the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) to revisit their maternity policy. 

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According to the rules introduced in 2019, “If a player is out of competition due to pregnancy or a medical condition, she is allowed 3 years to use her special ranking. In the event of pregnancy, the time period is calculated from the birth of the child.” Players can thus use this special protected ranking—which is frozen the day they stop playing—to enter events and ease their way back into competition. Osaka and Kerber are now a part of growing breed of sporting ‘working moms’, who believe childbirth doesn’t need to get in the way of their athletic ambitions.

Though a reticent superstar, Osaka has never shied away from starting conversations on difficult subjects. She had taken a sustained stand on police brutality against African-Americans at the 2020 US Open—wearing masks with names of victims engraved on them for each of her seven matches. In the spring of 2021, Osaka became the poster child and advocate for mental health and well-being of athletes, after she withdrew from the French Open. The Japanese player had then admitted that she suffered from bouts of depression after winning her first major—2018 US Open.

After a first-round exit at the 2022 US Open, a teary-eyed Osaka told reporters that she was taking an indefinite break from tennis. It was a time when she felt more relief than joy on winning. “For so long I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person.” Osaka had said in the Netflix documentary on her life. “What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?” With the birth of her daughter, the axis of her life has changed. And it has forced her to evolve.

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“I would say she's (her daughter) helped me grow up so much so quickly,” Osaka said in Brisbane last week. “I'm more confident with who I am as a person. I never tried to have conversations with other players before. I definitely put a large wall up. Off the court I'm more aware of people and I appreciate them a lot more, even my opponents and everything.”

During the Brisbane tourney, Osaka punctuated her matches with the regular thigh slaps and clenched fist come-ons, but she was quick to clap for her opponents whenever they came up with an ingenious shot too. Over the years, Osaka has divided opinion simply by choosing not to adhere to the straitjacket do’s and don’ts projected on athletes. But her aura on a tennis court in undeniable. 

In the fifteen months she was away, women’s tennis has gone through another round of champions. Aryna Sabalenka won the 2023 Australian Open, Marketa Vondrousova captured Wimbledon, Coco Gauff came of age at the US Open and Iga Swiatek raised her Grand Slam tally to four—the same as Osaka—and the most for active women’s tennis players. Whether Osaka has a realistic chance at this year’s Australian Open or not, she has the star power to supercharge an already exciting women’s field in Melbourne. 

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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