After emotionally claiming that she did not know when she would play again earlier this month, Naomi Osaka has declared that she has “that itch” and could return soon.
The despondent four-time major winner broke down in tears after being knocked out by then-world number 73 Leylah Fernandez at the US Open, losing in the third round a year after winning the title.
After a difficult season in which she hit the headlines for withdrawing from the French Open on mental health grounds after boycotting press duties, Osaka has now starred on a US TV show, HBO’s ‘The Shop’, which is produced by NBA legend LeBron James.
“It was a bit weird because after I won the US Open that first time [in 2018], I had to immediately play another tournament, so I didn’t really have to face the business stuff until the end of the year,” Osaka said of her whirlwind 12 months, appearing on the program alongside actress Wanda Sykes, rapper Jadakiss and James’ ex-teammate and fellow All-Star Kevin Love.
“And by then, I was just so happy to be getting deals and stuff. I also felt like I didn’t compromise my integrity that much at all – although I would say it’s a bit wild when you feel like people start knowing who you are overnight over one event. It’s honestly taken me two years to adjust from that.”
Those business deals made the Japanese hero the highest-earning female athlete in a year of all time, raking in an estimated $60 million to 2021 as part of a period when Osaka says she felt “overwhelmed” at times.
“I want to feel like I’m playing for myself,” she said of her plans for her future now. “And I started to feel like that power was being taken away from me in the way that I felt like I wasn’t playing to make myself happy and I was more concerned about if I won or lost, what would people say about me.
“I just used to love like the competition and just being competitive. You know, I’ve been playing tennis since I was three years old; for sure, I love the sport.
“I know I’m going to play again. Probably soon, because I kind of have that itch again, but it wouldn’t really matter to me if I won or lost.
“I’d just have the joy of being back on the court, just to… know that I’m doing it for myself.”
Currently the world number eight, Osaka said she is grateful for the influence late NBA icon Kobe Bryant had on her, as well as voicing her admiration for 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams.
“I always feel like if there was a younger player that ever needed any advice from me, I would love to give it,” she hoped.
“I would want people to remember me like how I acted toward people and how I interacted. For example, Serena? Her legacy is more than being Serena.
“I started playing because of her – I’m sure there’s so many girls that started playing because of her. She literally built champions. And I think passing it down is how the new generation gets inspired.”
Osaka enjoys using social media – including an Instagram account with almost three million followers – to broadcast her taste for fashion, including an eye-catching outfit for the recent Met Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The darker side of the platforms, she warned, has “given people the chance to say things that they would never say to you in person.”
“I feel like it just gives people access to you in a way that, I feel like, a couple of years ago, people would have to come up to you to affect you that way,” the 23-year-old added.
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