Osaka brings sunshine to Paris

A bubbly Naomi Osaka had her first hit in the French capital on Wednesday.

Naomi Osaka©Antoine Couvercelle/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

After a few overcast days in Paris, the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence and so did world No.1 Naomi Osaka, who hit the practice courts at the Jean Bouin facility on Wednesday morning.

With a couple of injury setbacks affecting her clay-court season in the build-up to Roland-Garros – a thumb problem forced her to withdraw ahead of her quarter-final in Rome last week, and an abdominal issue kept her from contesting the Stuttgart semi-finals – scores of reporters and TV crews gathered to watch Osaka’s first practice in Paris, to get an early look at the Japanese star’s form ahead of next week’s tournament kick-off.

Hitting with her coach Jermaine Jenkins and Japan Tennis Federation coach Masashi Yoshikawa, Osaka was her typical bubbly self throughout the 90-minute session. Showing no signs of the thumb injury that troubled her in Rome; the 21-year-old joked around with her team while working on her drop shots and drives, and even competed against Jenkins in some footwork drills set up by her fitness trainer Abdul Sillah.

“What are you counting? I hit like 10 already,” she told Jenkins with a chuckle as he kept shaving off some points from the tally of successful drop shots she made.

Comfort on clay

Sliding smoothly from one side of the court to the other, Osaka’s comfort level on clay continues to rise, which explains why she’s managed to post more wins on the surface this year (she is 7-1 win-loss on clay in 2019) compared to any other season she’s had on the professional circuit.

After capturing a second consecutive Grand Slam title by triumphing at the Australian Open last January, Osaka admitted to reporters that she will need to adjust her mentality on clay and grass in order to translate the form and success she’s had on hard courts to other surfaces.

It appears she’s done just that during this stretch on the red dirt, with her ability to make adjustments both mentally and technically, and her constant desire to look forward rather than focus on past accomplishments proving to be her greatest assets. It’s the main driving force behind her meteoric rise, and what is likely going to maintain her progress for many years to come.

“I tend to look forward instead of in the past and I want to win more,” Osaka told reporters in Madrid earlier this month. “Of course I’m really happy about all my accomplishments but I can’t let that sort of make me stop working hard.”

On a roll

The Japanese-Haitian youngster will be looking to extend her 14-match winning streak at the Grand Slams when she steps on court for her Roland-Garros opener next week. It’s going to be her first major as the No.1 seed, a feat she had been really keen to achieve, and one she hopes to experience again in the future.

“I definitely am thinking about keeping the No.1 ranking,” assured the reigning US and Australian Open champion.

“Of course for me I would love to have the career Grand Slam. It would be even better to make it a calendar. That's definitely my goal.

“At the same time, I don't really want to put too much pressure on myself like that because I feel like in the end I play my best when I'm enjoying myself. I feel like that's why I always do well in Grand Slams, because I always have fun there.”

Despite the physical problems that interrupted her clay campaign, Osaka is definitely approaching Roland-Garros with confidence, having lost just one match on the red dirt this year.

Supreme adaptability

Expanding on her mentality regarding the surface, Osaka says: “I think just being more comfortable sliding and moving around.

“I think last year I was set on liking hard more than clay instead of embracing clay-court. It's not like I can avoid this season, you know what I mean? So, I think this year I just sort of put all my energy into training and learning how to move better than I did before and yeah, I know what my goal is and I know what I'm trying to play for, so I'm doing whatever it takes to get there.

“I think just movement-wise, overall I've got a little bit better. I feel like I slide into the forehand now as opposed to sliding after I hit. I think that is one of the better things that I have done recently.”

When she won the Australian Open in January, Osaka became the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow up a maiden Grand Slam success by winning the very next major.

With the prospect of making it three in a row now, Osaka could be on the cusp of something very special in Paris.

Osaka is witty, insightful, quirky, and, as Madison Keys once described her, a “breath of fresh air”. But perhaps the most noticeable thing about her is how she approaches everything with a strong sense of purpose.

“My dreams they keep growing, and I always look towards the future,” she says in a recently released advertisement for one of her sponsors.

“I feel like everything connects and the things that you do aren’t really coincidence. It’s sort of your whole life has been leading up to those moments, even if it’s the tiny little things.”

Another special moment could be just around the corner for her.