Reigning champion Osaka back in action

Daniel Pockett / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Naomi Osaka is heading into the 2022 Australian Open as the defending champion and with what she says is a fresh outlook on tennis after taking mental health breaks in the middle of last season and again toward the end.

“I feel like, for me, I only really have one major goal this year, and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that,” Osaka said. “For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court ... I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.”

And then, with a self-aware nod to her open discussion of depression and the “huge waves of anxiety” she says she faces when dealing with the media, Osaka added: “Also, I have a goal in the press room that I’m never going to cry again. So hopefully that works out in my favor.”

With all of the attention that's been focused on Novak Djokovic's will-he-or-won't-he attempt to participate in the year's first Grand Slam tournament despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19, Osaka's return to action has been overlooked as competition approaches on Monday (Sunday in the U.S.).

Armed with relentless power on her serve and groundstrokes, the ability to quickly seize control of a point and an increasing amount of variety in her game, Osaka is a former No. 1-ranked player who owns four major championships, all on hard courts, including two at Melbourne Park.

After pulling out of the 2021 French Open before the second round, then sitting out Wimbledon, Osaka played at the Tokyo Games, where she lit the cauldron, but cut short her year after a third-round loss followed by a teary news conference at the U.S. Open in September.

“I could see that she hadn’t played for a couple months, for a few months, because, like, the rhythm was not there sometimes,” said Alize Cornet, who lost to Osaka this month in her first tournament back on tour, “but I think after a couple of matches, she will be again on top probably. She can do a lot of things with the tennis racket, so I’m not worried for her.”

Success on the court never really has been the issue for Osaka.

Her happiness away from the court has come and gone.

“During the offseason, I just hung out with my friends and talked to my family a lot. I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself. Then I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game,” said Osaka, who could face No. 1 Ash Barty in a fourth-round matchup with the feel of a final. “It’s not like it ever completely went away, but I felt like it got overshadowed by a lot of emotions that I was feeling just by constantly playing year after year."

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Reigning champion Osaka back in action
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