Nostalgia and memories of past glories have accompanied Naomi Osaka on her return to the Australian Open but the two-time champion is determined to be patient with herself.
Osaka is playing her first grand slam tournament since the US Open in 2022 after giving birth to daughter Shai last summer.
The winner at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, the 26-year-old is feeling her way back into life on tour having made her comeback at the Brisbane International last week.
“Just going into the locker room and having the same locker as before, I think little things like that really make me happy,” said Osaka.
“Just being able to hit on Rod Laver, I guess, look up at the sky and kind of realise, I’ve been able to win twice here. I would love to do it again.
“Definitely it is hard because I do think of all the amazing memories that I’ve had. I also think, in my head, who am I to just come back in the second tournament and expect so much from myself, especially against the best players in the world?
“Even hitting today with Ons (Jabeur), I caught myself getting a little disappointed in myself when I would make some mistakes. But I’m hitting against Ons. I think it’s just one of those things where I now think to myself that I have to give myself a lot of time and patience.”
Osaka cuts a notably happier figure than the player who struggled with her mental health during 2022 and contemplated stepping away from the sport completely.
Time and a new perspective as a mother has given Osaka, who is also a two-time winner of the US Open, a different outlook on her career.
“I’ve taken a lot of breaks throughout the years,” she said. “I think this one was the one that finally clicked in my head. I think I realised, being an athlete, that time is really precious. (Before) I was young and I felt like I could kind of roll back into it whenever I needed to.
“I guess after having Shai, going through the struggle of trying to get myself back to where I want to be, it was incredibly tough.
“I have a much more positive mindset and a much more grateful mindset. I think overall I’m just happy to be here because I remember last year I was watching people playing Australian Open, and I couldn’t participate myself.”
Osaka has not travelled to Australia with Shai, who has stayed back home in the USA.
“It’s definitely been really hard,” she said. “She’s learning things while I’m gone. I’m hoping she doesn’t learn how to crawl before I come back. She’s doing her little plank thing and scooting forward and back. I think it might be a little inevitable.
“I’m definitely sad, but I feel like it’s a selfish sad because I want her to be here. But I think, for her health, her whole environment is at home. I don’t want to put her out of that while she’s still so young. I FaceTime her often.”
Osaka, who joins fellow former champions Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber as mothers making their Australian Open returns, has a tricky first-round draw against 16th seed Caroline Garcia.
She is happy how her body has reacted to playing matches again, saying: “There has been stiffness and soreness but honestly not as bad as I was expecting. Even without having gone through post-pregnancy, I’m normally very sore on the first tournament back.
“But it ended up really fine. I think my body’s quite adaptable. I think I’ve been doing pretty well. I’m pretty confident with where I’m at right now.”