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Naomi Osaka’s Comeback Interview: Overcoming Pregnancy, Fear, and Embracing the Journey of a Ballerina

It was late September when Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion and transcendent star of her sport, finally got on the phone with her former coach to talk about her next comeback. Wim Fissette is a cerebral Belgian who thinks long and hard before taking on a player, even one with a resume like Osaka’s. He had one, very serious question.

Is it going to be different this time?

There was then another conversation, with Florian Zitzelsberger, a 34-year-old German who is one of the most respected strength and conditioning coaches in the world. Zitzelsberger had worked with Osaka before, too. He asked her the same question, and another important one, too. 

Why?

World-class tennis players worth hundreds of millions of dollars are not used to pushback like this. They get what they ask for, when they ask for it, and don’t get a lot of questions about it. 

But Fissette and Zitzelsberger had been down this road with Osaka, 26, who is maybe the most naturally talented and athletic player on Earth. She also has a complicated relationship with the sport that made her a generational, global star unlike anything women’s tennis had ever seen. She staged comebacks after extended breaks in 2021, and then again in 2022. Both got cut short because of injuries, struggles with mental health and, in the case of this latest one, the birth of Osaka’s first child, Shai, a daughter, in July. Osaka returned to competition in Australia last week (Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

Everyone asks Osaka these questions. Osaka, a walking billboard for intentionality, has answers. Do not mistake that soft, sing-songy, often quizzical voice for a lack of fortitude.

This a woman who, as a barely known and shy 20-year-old, thumped Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final in 2018, even as the match descended into chaos, with the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis and a teeming crowd of 23,000 doing everything in their power to topple her.

Osaka brought tennis to a halt amid continuing police violence against Black people in August 2020. Then she brought seven masks adorned with the names of victims of police violence to the U.S. Open that year — one for each match she intended to play, and did, as she won the title. In 2021, she forced a conversation about mental health by skipping her news conference at the French Open. When officials threatened to toss her from the competition, she withdrew, and made them look foolish for their overreach and lack of empathy.

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So of course she had answers for Fissette, for Zitzelsberger and for anyone else who wanted to know.

“At the core of everything, I want to show my daughter everything in the world, and I also want her to remember me playing tennis for as long as I can play tennis, because this is such an important part of my life,” Osaka says one brilliantly sunny California morning last month beside the practice court in Sherman Oaks that became her main place of work early in the fall. “I know the athlete’s lifespan isn’t that long. I probably won’t be able to play past when she’s, like, 14 or something like that. But I do want her to have a memory of me playing.”

She has another reason, too. The last time Osaka had been on a competitive tennis court, she withdrew from the Toray Pan Pacific Open in her native Japan with abdominal pain. She was not going to let that be her walk-off. 

“I don’t want people to remember me like that,” she said.

For the final three months of 2023, that private court at a sprawling home in the heart of the San Fernando Valley that her team has rented was the headquarters of Osaka 2.0, or maybe it’s 3.0. She is calling everything that came before this “Chapter 1”. What comes next is “Chapter 2”. 

This December morning, she is smashing through a practice set with Andrew Rogers, a former star at Pepperdine University and the University of Tennessee, who is part of a rotating cast of male practice partners that Fissette has brought in. Osaka’s skin glistens in the sun as she chases down balls in the corners, defending with a new energy that hasn’t always been there. 

On a changeover, Fissette tells her to find that balance between rushing a point and being too passive. Maybe it takes hitting two balls to get the point where you want it to go, he tells her as she stares out at the court rather than at him. 

Moments later, she blasts her serve, once one of the game’s most potent weapons, sending Rogers way wide. She jumps into forehand returns. She charges into the court to take backhands early. And, of course, because she is Osaka, she makes sure to say, “Nice serve,” when Rogers aces her.

Rogers is a sweaty mess when he chases down the last of her low flat balls.

“She’s very much like a guy off the ground,” he says, his breathing slightly labored several minutes after they finish. “And her wide serve to the deuce court (right side)… that’s a lot.” Naomi Osaka with practice partner Andrew Rogers (far left) and coaches Wim Fissette (holding racket) and Florian Zitzelsberger (far right) (Matt Futterman/The Athletic)

But will it be enough? Is there a version of Osaka that is good enough to compete with the best of the best in the women’s game — the power of Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka, the savvy and relentless defense of Coco Gauff, the guile and athleticism of Marketa Vondrousova, the grit of Jessica Pegula? How soon can she find it? Will she want it too much?

“Wim and Flo (Zitzelsberger), they constantly tell me to be proud of myself because there are moments where I do get a little down or a little frustrated because I’m constantly chasing this ‘me of the past’, if that makes sense,” she says pensively. “I know that’s not realistic, because in my head the ‘me in the past’ was like a perfect player, which I know I’m not, looking at like old tapes of myself, and I know that right now I’m actually doing a couple of things better than I was doing before.”

Women’s tennis has evolved since Osaka last ruled it. Fissette and Zitzelsberger are assuming that what she was will not be good enough. Last month, they even brought in a ballet dancer who has worked with Zitzelsberger’s other athletes to help Osaka improve her movement and raise her game to the place where Fissette always thought she could go — if her mind was fully committed to the task.

“Everyone who is here believes she never reached her full potential,” Fissette says. “We had three nice years, we won two slams, and it was really good. But I was, in some ways, disappointed.”

Osaka could have never played a competitive match again and still likely made the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She could have walked away as one of the wealthiest women in the history of sports. At her peak, when she was winning championships and lighting the Olympic flame in Tokyo, she had as many as 15 sponsors and was taking in an estimated $50 million a year in endorsements and prize money for multiple years. Handled properly, that is generational wealth.

Two years ago, she and her agent, Stuart Duguid, were waiting in a lounge at a Tokyo airport getting ready to fly back from the Olympics when their conversation turned to empire building in the fashion of Osaka’s friends and mentors — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant. Both remember the conversation like it was yesterday. 

“All these male athletes have platforms and production companies, why does no female athlete have that?” Duguid asked one evening last month at an Adweek conference in Los Angeles, where he and Osaka were featured speakers.  Osaka with the Australian Open trophy in 2019 (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Together, they have embarked on creating their own empire. She and Duguid launched an agency, Evolve, which is now working with other athletes and also golf’s LPGA and soccer’s NWSL. They began investing in companies. They founded a production company, Hana Kuma, her version of James’ Uninterrupted. 

Osaka knows that playing tennis and winning championships will help build her empire. But returning to tennis wasn’t simply a business decision or a…

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