Osaka hits the practice courts at RG
Belgian coach is confident the Japanese four-time Grand Slam champion will soon adapt her game to the clay
If Naomi Osaka can show in matches what she has been doing in practice, she will be a contender at Roland-Garros -- that’s according to her coach Wim Fissette, who has guided the Japanese star to two major singles titles since they started working together in December 2019.
“I see the possibilities of Naomi on clay, I believe in her chances and the more matches she plays on it, the more dangerous she will become on this surface,” Fissette told rolandgarros.com, in an interview conducted in Dutch.
“But she does need time and hours on the court to feel really well on it and to make this click, like, ‘This is how we have to play on it’.
“I think we have seen this during training sessions, but not in the matches so far this year,” said Fissette, a former pro who has guided a host of major winners including Kim Clijsters and Angelique Kerber.
“I hope of course we get this moment in Paris,” said the Belgian.
Dominant on faster hard courts, where she has won all four of her Grand Slam titles, Osaka’s attacking game style has yet to pay any real dividend on the slower clay.
A two-time winner at the US Open and the Australian Open, Osaka, 23, has failed to go beyond the third round in Paris in four attempts.
Beaten early in Madrid and Rome, the world’s highest-paid female athlete comes into Roland-Garros lacking matches and confidence on her weaker surface.
She was drawn against the 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig of Romania in her first round in Paris. A possible quarter-final awaits against former US Open winner Bianca Andreescu of Canada, followed by Serena Williams or the in-form Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the last four.
Fissette is confident Osaka could work her way into form in Paris.
“She does understand what is necessary to conquer the clay,” he said.
“I hope she will get a few matches where she will be able to battle through and improve her level step-by-step. If she is able to do that, then I do believe in it.
“Naomi has shown in the past she is able to excel in the Grand Slam tournaments,” he added. “During these events, she is even more motivated, and fights even more than normal.
“So I think we definitely cannot rule out Naomi as a dangerous player in Paris.”
Former world No.1 Chris Evert, who won the Roland-Garros title seven times and owns 18 major crowns overall, says Osaka, who learnt to play the game on US hard courts, needs time to learn how to move on clay.
“Part of the reason why I felt like I was successful [on clay] is I grew up on it,” the American legend told rolandgarros.com. “And boy, that helps.
“A lot of it is about the moving and a lot of it is about the anticipation, the changing directions... and the sliding. That becomes more instinctive and more natural the more you do it.”
Evert said Osaka could take heart from the efforts of Maria Sharapova, who once said she moved like “a cow on ice” on the red dirt, before adapting her game to become a two-time champion in Paris.
“Naomi, it might take a few more years for her,” Evert said. “I think she and her team know that [movement] is probably the most important thing. And changing directions, the sliding, anticipating. And I think, again, when you haven't been brought up on clay, you have to work extra hard to achieve that.”
Fissette admits expectations this year are lower than they might be normally, due to the crowded schedule and especially with the Tokyo Olympics next month, where Osaka is expected to shine.
“If we had had a normal year, with an earlier Australian Open and no Olympics, then we could have had more practice weeks on the clay and I would have given her a greater chance on clay,” Fissette said.
“But it is what it is, and we will try to make the best of it. She is very young, she still has a lot to learn, but she is ready to learn.”
The partnership between Fissette and Osaka has already yielded two Grand Slam titles. The next step is conquering other surfaces, starting with clay.
“This year, we are making steps in this process and I am convinced she will learn a lot on clay this year, and she will use that for next year,” Fissette said.
“But I am convinced that Naomi Osaka will win Roland-Garros one day,” he said.