MELBOURNE, Australia — There may not have been a greater cheer over the first two days of Australian Open play than the one that reverberated around Rod Laver Arena as Naomi Osaka was warmly welcomed back into the cauldron of Grand Slam competition from an 18-month maternity break.
The capacity crowd rose to its feet in anticipation as a steely faced Osaka strode through the walk of champions, headphones on and sparkling inside a shiny gold jacket. As she passed by her own banner, which displayed her 2019 and 2021 Melbourne Park triumphs, she reached out with her left palm and gently grazed it, perhaps for good luck.
Then came the introduction over the PA system and the ensuing roar. Osaka was back.
The former world No. 1’s return to major tennis — Osaka made her official comeback earlier this month at the Brisbane International — may have been spoiled by 16th seed Caroline Garcia, who prevailed 6-4, 7-6 (2), but it proved just how much she means to the sport. The crowd rallied behind her from the opening point right up until she fluffed an attempted crosscourt backhand to stave off the first of what would have been four Garcia match points.
There’s no doubt Osaka was rusty. She struggled with her serve and was unable to find a consistent rhythm in the baseline scraps, dumping some balls halfway up the net and others 6 feet past the baseline. At times she looked toward the night sky, seemingly dumbfounded with how she was playing. But that was all to be expected from someone who has changed more diapers in the last six months than played sets of tennis.
“I felt like I did the best that I could possibly do. It was just really nice to be on Rod Laver again, hear the audience, how much they interacted with the match,” Osaka said after the defeat. “I have to tell myself, ‘Hey, like six months ago you were pregnant,’ stuff like that. Of course, there’s a voice in my head that is, ‘Who are you to think you can come back and immediately start winning matches?'”
What was encouraging about the Osaka performance was her positive approach and willingness to swing freely throughout even if she later admitted to feeling “hesitant” on the court. The fitness and finesse will return with more matches under her belt, but that mindset is something sure to hold her in good stead as she prepares to tackle her first full season since 2019. And that’s exactly what every tennis stakeholder will be hoping for.
IT’S NO SECRET that tennis has desperately missed Osaka. Her absence from the tour came at a time when the sport was navigating perhaps its most difficult period, transitioning from an icon-laden era to a new chapter full of unknowns.
It was during the Osaka hiatus that perhaps the greatest female tennis player ever, Serena Williams, played her final match. The departure of the 23-time Slam champion was inevitable, and it left a gaping hole in not only the women’s game, but tennis in general. The void was even more stark given Williams’ retirement came not 12 months after Roger Federer, arguably the most universally adored player in history, had called time on his illustrious career. In what seemed a blink of an eye, two champions, and two legitimate GOAT candidates, were gone.
But the current tennis void goes far beyond just Williams and Federer. Rafael Nadal missed just about the entirety of the 2023 season with a hip flexor injury, and his attempted comeback this month sadly stalled when he reinjured himself at the Brisbane International, forcing him to withdraw from the Australian Open. Given Nadal has already hinted at this year’s Olympic Games in Paris as a potential farewell event, opportunities to enjoy the Spanish star are quickly dwindling.
Nick Kyrgios may well be polarizing, but there’s no denying he’s box office entertainment and one of the sport’s most recognizable names. The 28-year-old Australian didn’t play a competitive point during Osaka’s maternity leave, as he continues to deal with a nagging wrist injury. There’s still no clear timetable on his return.
In fact, the only constant among tennis’ A-listers has been Novak Djokovic, who continues to rack up major titles and enhance his legacy. But even Djokovic, 36, can’t continue to defy Father Time forever, and he must be at least pondering when he begins his farewell tour.
Tennis needs Osaka now more than ever. The sport is crying out for a fresh crop of faces to lead the way into what’s been looming as a daunting new era for quite some time. And while Osaka, now 26, isn’t exactly an up-and-comer, she’s the perfect candidate to lead the charge and take the baton from that golden generation.
“I’ve taken a lot of breaks throughout the years … I think this one was the one that finally clicked in my head,” Osaka said in Melbourne. “I think I realized, like, being an athlete, that time is really precious. I never took that for granted before [but] I was young and I felt like I could kind of roll back into it whenever I needed to.
“I guess after having Shai, kind of 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.”
Osaka burst onto the scene at the Australian Open in 2018, defeating hometown hero Ashleigh Barty en route to the fourth round of the tournament. By August, she was a major champion, having beaten Williams for the US Open crown. And while that match was marred by controversy, it provided a launchpad to superstardom and a level of popularity almost unrivalled in tennis.
The universal adoration for Osaka gained more traction after she spoke candidly about her struggles with mental health and opted to take time away from the tour during the 2021 season. There’s something about her vulnerability and soft-spoken humble demeanor that has made her such a relatable figure; as relatable as a multimillion-dollar star athlete can feel to the average person.
Osaka is unquestionably the greatest draw and needle mover on the women’s side of the game. She’s also one of tennis’ most marketable figures, resonating all over the globe, particularly in the United States and Asia.
The reception she received at Melbourne Park on Monday evening only highlighted just how much she has been missed by the entire tennis world, and how crucial it is for her to help steer the sport through the coming years.