Naomi Osaka returns to tennis -- with a new joy and perspective

Osaka focused on balancing motherhood with return to tennis (2:49)

Naomi Osaka sits down with ESPN's D'Arcy Maine to discuss her return to tennis following the birth of her daughter. (2:49)

IT WAS DEC. 1 when everything seemed to come together -- again -- for Naomi Osaka.

She had been working tirelessly for the previous seven weeks with her team on and off the court at a private residence in Sherman Oaks, California, and on this day, it was as if everything that had made her a four-time major champion and world No. 1 clicked back into place.

Someone suggested filming part of their practice on that sunny Friday, but Osaka's coach, Wim Fissette, didn't need to check the footage to know what he was seeing with his own eyes.

"She was suddenly flying over the court and destroying every ball," Fissette said. "She was incredible. I don't know if she was inspired by the camera and wanted to show off her movement but that was when I thought, 'She's pretty much exactly where she needs to be to compete.'"

Standing nearby, Florian Zitzelsberger, her performance coach, couldn't help but think she looked even better than she did before her break from the sport.

"I thought, 'She's so much more flexible now, she's moving better, she's so much more healthy,'" Zitzelsberger said.

Osaka later posted some of the video on her social media accounts. It didn't take long to get the attention of tennis fans who were quick to comment:

"She's BACK."

"Motherhood definitely just makes something clickkk bc babyyy.. you really feel invincible!"

"She's hitting like Serena. Watch the hell out folks she's ready to come back."

A few days later, Osaka looked every bit as ready to return to competition as her coaches and those online seemed to believe. Under the California winter sun -- and watchful eyes of many, including television crews and reporters -- Osaka remained undeterred by the attention. As people buzzed around the grounds, she never lost focus. She remained on the court, chasing down balls and giving herself the occasional pep talk under her breath. From time to time, she subtly clenched her fist in her signature, celebratory way.

Her ball-striking was powerful. She moved with ease. She looked calm and composed but also, perhaps most notably of all, happy. Relaxed, even. The smile that frequently appeared on her face didn't disappear when she spoke with ESPN later that afternoon.

"Honestly I'm feeling pretty positive," Osaka said. "Giving birth to my daughter changed my mindset a lot. And it's also made me realize that my world doesn't have to revolve around me -- which might also be a little selfish too. I guess I've just found outer happiness and inner peace."

It's been a long journey for the 26-year-old. When she announced her pregnancy in January of 2023, some wondered if she would ever return to the sport. After winning four Grand Slam titles between the US Open in 2018 and the Australian Open in 2021, Osaka had struggled in the years since, and said tennis wasn't bringing her joy anymore.

But now, after giving birth to Shai in July, and a 15-month break from the sport, Osaka is back with a new perspective. She made her return at Brisbane earlier this month, where she reached the second round, and will next play No. 16 seed and 2022 US Open semifinalist Caroline Garcia in the first round at the Australian Open.

"It definitely feels much different [now]," Osaka said. "It feels like I have a sense of responsibility for my daughter. But also I'm very happy at the same time. I'm super excited [to be back]."

OSAKA OFFICIALLY PUT the world on notice in 2018. After a fourth-round run at the Australian Open, she stole the show at Indian Wells in March. The tournament had been heralded as Serena Williams' return following childbirth, but it was Osaka who was left holding the trophy on the final day. Throughout the two weeks, Osaka defeated a slew of big names -- including Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep -- before cruising past Daria Kasatkina for her first WTA title.

Osaka's ranking soared, but then so did the expectations and attention. Months later, she won the US Open in a controversial final over Williams, who had been seeking her 24th Grand Slam title. The sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium had descended into chaos after Williams was penalized a game in the second set following an extended argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, and the scene only got uglier once Osaka secured the victory.

Osaka became the first Japanese player in history to win a major -- but the much-discussed moment was defined by boos and tears.

In a 2021 social media post, Osaka said the match had been a turning point for her mental health.

"The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that," Osaka wrote.

The win thrust her into the mainstream spotlight, and she immediately proved what had happened in New York was no fluke. She won the year-opening Australian Open in 2019 and jumped to the world No. 1 ranking. Off the court, she was also thriving. By 2020, Forbes had named her the highest-paid female athlete in history.

When she won her fourth major title in Melbourne in February of 2021 -- moving her behind only Serena and Venus Williams for most among active WTA players -- she all but cemented her spot as the sport's latest dominant superstar.

But ahead of the French Open that spring, Osaka announced she wouldn't be participating in the required news conferences after her matches, for mental health reasons. The decision set off a firestorm, culminating in Osaka withdrawing ahead of her second-round match.

"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris," Osaka wrote on Instagram. "I never wanted to be a distraction."

Osaka went on to skip Wimbledon, then lost in the third round at both the Olympics and the US Open. In New York, she tearfully told reporters she was considering taking a break from tennis. "I feel like for me recently, like, when I win, I don't feel happy," Osaka said. "I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don't think that's normal."

She returned for the 2022 season, but was unable to advance past the third round at a major. She split with Fissette in July after a 2½-year partnership. By the end of 2022, her ranking had fallen to No. 42.

And on Jan. 11, 2023, just days before the Australian Open was set to begin, Osaka announced she was expecting a baby with her partner, the rapper Cordae, with a sonogram picture. "Can't wait to get back on the court but here's a little life update for 2023," she wrote.

OSAKA STAYED OUT of the spotlight throughout her pregnancy and maternity leave. But while fans didn't see much of her, she was never far from the game. Her absence from competition rejuvenated something inside her. After a difficult childbirth -- she told InStyle she suffered from a bacterial infection and the umbilical cord was wrapped around Shai's neck -- Osaka resumed her conditioning training just weeks later. She even watched some tennis, a rarity for her, in the final days of her pregnancy and throughout the summer. She attended the US Open in person as a fan for a day, giving herself a reminder of what life is like on tour.

"I really don't like watching matches because I'm really competitive," Osaka said. "And I feel like the more I watch matches, the more I want to play. And if I'm in a position where I can't play, it just makes me frustrated. [But] I watched a lot of Wimbledon actually and of course the US Open."

"We're realistic and we don't know what to expect at this moment, but Naomi is special. You always have to think of her as a potential winner." Wim Fissette

In September, Osaka met with Fissette and asked if he would be interested in working with her again. The two had won the 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open together before parting ways. Fissette was coaching Zheng Qinwen at the time, but after hearing Osaka's goals and motivations, he didn't hesitate.

"She told me she missed tennis and she really wanted to come back," Fissette said. "She said, 'I really want my daughter to see me at my best.' And she said, 'I really feel like I did really well on hardcourt, but I haven't done anything on the clay and the grass and there's so much I want to achieve.' She's always been pretty honest with me and when she looked me in my eyes and told me that, I really felt it. I believed it.

"So far, she's really been using every minute she has to work towards those goals. I feel like now we're on track to make her the best Naomi ever."

On Oct. 7, Osaka and Fissette officially began working together again. They brought back Zitzelsberger as her performance coach and added Erica Cole as a full-time physical therapist.

Osaka rented a house for the trio to stay in for the months leading into the 2024 season, and it became the headquarters for everything related to Osaka's comeback. The group spent hours on the tennis court. The pool, surrounded by pomegranate and lemon trees, turned into a giant ice bath. The plush furniture in the living room was pushed aside and a massage table sat as its new centerpiece. Osaka, who lives about 20 minutes away, spent every day except for Sunday at the house with the team.

The first practice day -- which Fissette called a "homecoming" -- was eye-opening for all. Osaka "hadn't forgotten how to play tennis" and her ball-striking remained clean, but her movement was rusty. Everyone knew there was a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time if she wanted to return to competition for the start of 2024.

According to both Fissette and Zitzelsberger, every moment since has been done with purpose.

"From the first day, we set new goals and we started new routines, from nutrition to strength training," said Zitzelsberger. "We said, 'This is now your professional life. This is how everything should look like. Let's now just go for it.'"

They also included activities like hiking and ballet, in an effort to work different muscles, improve mobility and breathing and, simply, to keep it fun. With an emphasis on her happiness and ensuring she also had time to spend at home with Shai, Osaka fully bought in and trusted the process. It seems to have paid off.

"I don't think we could have made more progress," Fissette said. "I really don't."

OSAKA ARRIVED IN Brisbane for her first tournament shortly before Christmas. She said earlier in the month that she anticipated there would be nerves, as well as some sorrow about leaving Shai at home.

"If I think about it too much, it makes me sad," Osaka said in December. "But I also don't want her to be on an airplane for so long because she's still very young. I think definitely [Shai will be a motivating factor], or I hope I would play better, because I don't want my reason for leaving her ..."

Osaka's voice trailed off before explaining she didn't want to travel more than 7,000 miles without her infant daughter if she wasn't going to see some tangible results on the court.

"I guess I want to win," she continued. "I want to do well."

On New Year's Day, Osaka took the court for the first time in 15 months to face Tamara Korpatsch. In front of a packed crowd at Pat Rafter Arena at the Brisbane International, Osaka needed three match points and a second-set tiebreak, but ultimately secured the win. She clinched her fist and tilted her face toward the sky as she smiled in celebration when it was over.

"I was super nervous playing the entire time," Osaka told the crowd moments later. "But I was really excited to be out here, and it feels really good to be back."

Osaka lost in her second-round match to former world No. 1 Pliskova, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, but she was clearly pleased by her fight and ability to compete in such a lengthy battle. She told reporters her two Brisbane matches proved she was "doing OK" and she later wrote, "Ngl that was really fun though" on X (formerly Twitter).

She now enters the Australian Open with two matches under her belt and ranked No. 831 in the world. If she were to win her opener against Garcia, she potentially could face Daria Saville or Magdalena Frech in the second round, and possibly Coco Gauff in the fourth. She was candid in December about her chances of winning the tournament.

"It's weird, my second tournament is going to be a Grand Slam," Osaka said. "Normally I feel like people play way more tournaments to lead into that. But I guess doing well is knowing that there's nothing more I could have done in that tournament and leaving with a sense of accomplishment -- and leaving with a feeling that I can learn so much more."

Fissette said their priority for Australia was simply keeping Osaka happy and healthy, in "the first part of a new chapter." No one was putting too many expectations on the trip -- although Fissette said he wasn't ruling out a deep run.

"We're realistic and we don't know what to expect at this moment, but Naomi is special," Fissette said. "You always have to think of her as a potential winner."

And even Osaka will speak openly about her dreams for the rest of her career. In a television interview with former Japanese player Shuzo Matsuoka last April, Osaka said she wanted to win eight more Grand Slam titles, as well as Olympic gold this summer in Paris. When asked if those remain her goals and if she believed she could reach them, she explained her mindset.

"I really think I could," Osaka said. "I feel like if I set really high goals, I'll be able to achieve at least one of them as opposed to if I set, like, the quarterfinals. You know what I mean? Then I'd just be happy with anything. So it's a little pressure. But I do feel like I have to set higher goals for myself."

Osaka added that her break away from the game made it clear to her just how limited the lifespan of a professional athlete is, and how she needed to maximize the window she had to accomplish her dreams.

"Tennis is something I live for, but it's not the reason I'm alive." Naomi Osaka

Even still, her perspective on the sport has shifted now that Shai has become the center of her world. The highlight of her day, when she's home, is walking into Shai's room in the morning and seeing her daughter reach out to be picked up. To Shai, she's just mom, and after several years of being a global superstar, that's a refreshing change.

"Tennis is something I live for, but it's not the reason I'm alive," Osaka said. "I think playing matches and then coming home to her will change my view on a lot of things."

AFTER THE CAMERAS stopped rolling on that sun-soaked day in Los Angeles, Osaka couldn't help but share details of Shai's latest milestones -- she was sitting up but not yet crawling -- and gush over her daughter. Her joy was palpable, and it didn't stop when she resumed training with her team shortly after. As the crowd of people began to dissipate from the grounds, she smiled and laughed with those around her.

Osaka had said she will no longer let her on-court results define her or be a measure of her happiness, and at that moment, it seemed no matter what happens in Melbourne and beyond, she will be just fine.

"When I was younger, success was how many trophies I would win or things like that," Osaka said. "And now I think success is, I don't want to say inner peace, but it's just having the people around you that love you. And they're all good and you're good."