Updated January 10th, 2024 at 15:53 IST

Now a mom, Naomi Osaka gets ready to make her Grand Slam return at the Australian Open

She's focusing on being more in the moment. More patient. More conscious of who may be watching her play her first major since 2022, and what kind of impression she'll leave.

Naomi Osaka | Image: AP
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Smaller things are getting Naomi Osaka's attention now that she's preparing for her Grand Slam comeback.

She's focusing on being more in the moment. More patient. More conscious of who may be watching her play her first major since 2022 , and what kind of impression she'll leave.

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The first 15-day Australian Open, set to start Sunday morning (Saturday night in the U.S. ET), has been hyped as the tournament of comebacks. And Osaka has top billing among the three former No. 1-ranked, former Australian Open champions returning to Melbourne Park for their first time as moms.

The attention on that returning trio — Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki — intensified after another prominent storyline fizzled out when Rafael Nadal’s attempted comeback from a year-long injury layoff lasted three matches.

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The 22-time major winner has a small tear in a muscle near his surgically repaired hip and and flew home, leaving Novak Djokovic as the only remaining member of the so-called Big Three.

Osaka competed for the first time in more than a year last week; she became a mother in July when her daughter, Shai, was born.

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The four-time major winner went 1-1 in Brisbane and found herself engaging more with other players, and more eager to acknowledge fans.

“A part of me felt like Shai was watching me,” she said. “I wanted to do my best for her. Also, when I was signing autographs, I was more aware of kids. I see them differently now because now I’m a mom, too, and I can picture Shai being that age. Yeah, I think while I’m playing, I’m aware of it in the sense that I want to be a good role model for my daughter.”

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The 26-year-old Osaka has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. She was born in Japan and grew up in the U.S. With endorsements and prize money, she's one of the wealthiest athletes in women's sports.

In the past, she's felt enormous pressure . Osaka was open about her issues with depression and anxiety when she withdrew from the French Open in 2021. She later took extended breaks from the game to protect her mental health.

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She didn’t play elite-level tennis at all last year, but realized she really did miss it.

"Becoming a mom changed my mindset a lot,” she said. “I think I’m a lot more open-minded, a lot more patient. Also, I feel a lot stronger physically, but I think Shai definitely helped me with the way I view things.”

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Osaka won her second U.S. Open title in 2020 and her second Australian Open title in 2021. Not long after, she said, “I closed myself off a lot."

“I don't think that was quite fair. ... When people give me positivity and joy, I feel like it's fair to return it."

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In Brisbane, Osaka didn't wear headphones around the tennis venue, a choice she described as “character development!”

“I feel like I’m more confident with who I am as a person,” she said. “Now I find myself interacting with people.”

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Kerber, who had her Grand Slam breakthrough in Australia in 2016, withdrew from the 2022 U.S. Open because she was pregnant. Her daughter, Liana, was born in February; Kerber's first win since in a competitive match was last week in Sydney as a member of Germany's victorious United Cup team .

“For me to start my comeback like this, I mean, it couldn’t be better, to be honest,” she said. “It was a completely cold start for me. I had no idea where I am.”

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One of her four losses was to top-ranked Iga Swiatek, one of the power players dominating the women's game. Regardless, the feeling of being back "was amazing; what I really missed.”

Wozniacki won the Australian Open in 2018, ending a long drought in majors. She married former NBA player David Lee the following year, quit the tour in 2020 and had two children, Olivia and James.

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She returned in time for last year's U.S. Open, where she lost to eventual champion Coco Gauff in the round of 16 .

She was given a wild-card entry for the Australian Open and warmed up in Auckland, New Zealand, last week , where she lost to another mom, Elina Svitolina.

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There'll be other mothers in the 128-player Australian Open women's singles draw, including two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, who reached the semifinals last year while traveling with her son, Leo.

She said a stereotype that you can't be an elite athlete and have a family had been broken.

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“It’s actually evolved more and more. The testament of that is how many players are feeling comfortable and confident coming back and continue being on tour,” Azarenka said. “I believe that we still have a lot more growth to do in that space.”

Three women have won major titles in the Open era after having children: Margaret Court in Australia in 1973, Evonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980 and Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open in 2009.

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Serena Williams missed four majors before making a comeback in 2018 after her first daughter, Olympia, was born but wasn't quite able to add to her 23 Grand Slam titles.

Defending Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka beat Azarenka in the semifinals at Brisbane last week, and described her and Williams as inspirational for other athletes.

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“Gives me belief,” Sabalenka said, “that maybe one day I can have a baby and come back and play on (a) high level.”

 

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Published January 10th, 2024 at 15:53 IST