It was late September when Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion and transcendent star of her sport, lastly received on the telephone along with her former coach to speak about her subsequent comeback. 

Wim Fissette is a cerebral Belgian who thinks lengthy and onerous earlier than taking up a participant, even one with a resume like Osaka’s. He had one, very severe query.

Is it going to be totally different this time?

There was then one other dialog, with Florian Zitzelsberger, a 34-year-old German who’s one of essentially the most revered power and conditioning coaches on this planet. Zitzelsberger had labored with Osaka earlier than, too. He requested her the identical query, and one other vital one, too. 

Why?

World-class tennis gamers price a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} should not used to pushback like this. They get what they ask for, after they ask for it, and don’t get a lot of questions on it. 

However Fissette and Zitzelsberger had been down this street with Osaka, 26, who’s perhaps essentially the most naturally gifted and athletic participant on Earth. She additionally has a sophisticated relationship with the game that made her a generational, world star in contrast to something girls’s tennis had ever seen. She staged comebacks after prolonged breaks in 2021, and then once more in 2022. Each received lower quick as a result of of accidents, struggles with psychological well being and, within the case of this newest one, the delivery of Osaka’s first youngster, Shai, a daughter, in July.


Osaka returned to competitors in Australia final week (Patrick Hamilton/AFP through Getty Photos)

Everybody asks Osaka these questions. Osaka, a strolling billboard for intentionality, has solutions. Don’t mistake that comfortable, sing-songy, usually quizzical voice for a lack of fortitude.

This a girl who, as a barely recognized and shy 20-year-old, thumped Serena Williams within the U.S. Open remaining in 2018, even because the match descended into chaos, with the best participant within the historical past of girls’s tennis and a teeming crowd of 23,000 doing every part of their energy to topple her. 

Osaka introduced tennis to a halt amid persevering with police violence towards Black folks in August 2020. Then she introduced seven masks adorned with the names of victims of police violence to the U.S. Open that yr — one for every match she supposed to play, and did, as she received the title. In 2021, she compelled a dialog about psychological well being by skipping her information convention on the French Open. When officers threatened to toss her from the competitors, she withdrew, and made them look silly for his or her overreach and lack of empathy. 


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So of course she had solutions for Fissette, for Zitzelsberger and for anybody else who wished to know.

“At the core of everything, I want to show my daughter everything in the world, and I also want her to remember me playing tennis for as long as I can play tennis, because this is such an important part of my life,” Osaka says one brilliantly sunny California morning final month beside the apply courtroom in Sherman Oaks that grew to become her predominant place of work early within the fall. “I know the athlete’s lifespan isn’t that long. I probably won’t be able to play past when she’s, like, 14 or something like that. But I do want her to have a memory of me playing.”

She has another excuse, too. The final time Osaka had been on a aggressive tennis courtroom, she withdrew from the Toray Pan Pacific Open in her native Japan with stomach ache. She was not going to let that be her walk-off. 

“I don’t want people to remember me like that,” she mentioned.

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For the ultimate three months of 2023, that personal courtroom at a sprawling residence within the coronary heart of the San Fernando Valley that her staff has rented was the headquarters of Osaka 2.0, or perhaps it’s 3.0. She is asking every part that got here earlier than this “Chapter 1”. What comes subsequent is “Chapter 2”. 

This December morning, she is smashing by way of a apply set with Andrew Rogers, a former star at Pepperdine College and the College of Tennessee, who is a component of a rotating forged of male apply companions that Fissette has introduced in. Osaka’s pores and skin glistens within the solar as she chases down balls within the corners, defending with a new vitality that hasn’t all the time been there. 

On a changeover, Fissette tells her to search out that steadiness between dashing a level and being too passive. Possibly it takes hitting two balls to get the purpose the place you need it to go, he tells her as she stares out on the courtroom relatively than at him. 

Moments later, she blasts her serve, as soon as one of the sport’s most potent weapons, sending Rogers manner vast. She jumps into forehand returns. She prices into the courtroom to take backhands early. And, of course, as a result of she is Osaka, she makes certain to say, “Nice serve,” when Rogers aces her.

Rogers is a sweaty mess when he chases down the final of her low flat balls.  

“She’s very much like a guy off the ground,” he says, his respiration barely labored a number of minutes after they end. “And her wide serve to the deuce court (right side)… that’s a lot.”

Naomi Osaka and her team


Naomi Osaka with apply companion Andrew Rogers (far left) and coaches Wim Fissette (holding racket) and Florian Zitzelsberger (far proper) (Matt Futterman/The Athletic)

However will it’s sufficient? Is there a model of Osaka that’s adequate to compete with one of the best of one of the best within the girls’s recreation — the ability of Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka, the savvy and relentless protection of Coco Gauff, the guile and athleticism of Marketa Vondrousova, the grit of Jessica Pegula? How quickly can she discover it? Will she need it an excessive amount of?

“Wim and Flo (Zitzelsberger), they constantly tell me to be proud of myself because there are moments where I do get a little down or a little frustrated because I’m constantly chasing this ‘me of the past’, if that makes sense,” she says pensively. “I know that’s not realistic, because in my head the ‘me in the past’ was like a perfect player, which I know I’m not, looking at like old tapes of myself, and I know that right now I’m actually doing a couple of things better than I was doing before.”

Ladies’s tennis has developed since Osaka final dominated it. Fissette and Zitzelsberger are assuming that what she was won’t be adequate. Final month, they even introduced in a ballet dancer who has labored with Zitzelsberger’s different athletes to assist Osaka enhance her motion and elevate her recreation to the place the place Fissette all the time thought she may go — if her thoughts was absolutely dedicated to the duty.

“Everyone who is here believes she never reached her full potential,” Fissette says. “We had three nice years, we won two slams, and it was really good. But I was, in some ways, disappointed.”

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Osaka may have by no means performed a aggressive match once more and nonetheless doubtless made the Worldwide Tennis Corridor of Fame. She may have walked away as one of the wealthiest girls within the historical past of sports activities. At her peak, when she was profitable championships and lighting the Olympic flame in Tokyo, she had as many as 15 sponsors and was taking in an estimated $50 million a yr in endorsements and prize cash for a number of years. Dealt with correctly, that’s generational wealth.

Two years in the past, she and her agent, Stuart Duguid, had been ready in a lounge at a Tokyo airport on the point of fly again from the Olympics when their dialog turned to empire constructing within the vogue of Osaka’s mates and mentors — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant. Each keep in mind the dialog prefer it was yesterday. 

“All these male athletes have platforms and production companies, why does no female athlete have that?” Duguid requested one night final month at an Adweek convention in Los Angeles, the place he and Osaka had been featured audio system. 

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Osaka with the Australian Open trophy in 2019 (Julian Finney/Getty Photos)

Collectively, they’ve launched into creating their very own empire. She and Duguid launched an company, Evolve, which is now working with different athletes and additionally golf’s LPGA and soccer’s NWSL. They started investing in corporations. They based a manufacturing firm, Hana Kuma, her model of James’ Uninterrupted. 

Osaka is aware of that enjoying tennis and profitable championships will assist construct her empire. However returning to tennis wasn’t merely a enterprise determination or a method to make her daughter proud. It was one thing visceral.

Final January, in her fourth month of being pregnant, she didn’t watch the yr’s first Grand Slam

“I avoided watching the Australian Open because I knew it would make me feel very upset,” she says.

She additionally restricted how a lot she watched the remainder of the yr. 

“It always makes me very competitive and very hungry,” she says. “Whenever I see someone play I always want to play, too.”

Anybody who caught a glimpse of Osaka watching the U.S. Open, from the entrance row of Arthur Ashe Stadium, her face a mixture of bitter and clean, may see she was not content material being an observer. Zitzelsberger mentioned Osaka’s objectives go far past participation.

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Osaka and coach Fissette work in Brisbane final week (Patrick Hamilton/AFP through Getty Photos)

“She wants to be the world No 1 again,” he says after apply sooner or later a few weeks in the past. “She saw all the players and everything that was going on the last one and a half years when she was not there. And this just gave her a feeling, ‘I have to get back to here. I want to have it again’.”

Osaka says she first stepped again onto a tennis courtroom in mid-August, a little greater than a month after giving delivery on July 3. It was simply a informal hit, however even after so many months away, her really feel for the ball was nonetheless there, an amazing reduction. 

Rediscovering her motion was trickier. 

“Some of my muscles were gone and also my core was completely destroyed,” she says.

She wished to get again to coaching as quickly as she may realistically pursue it. She knew her predominant precedence was mothering Shai, one thing she was nonetheless studying the best way to do. 

It wasn’t straightforward. There have been a lot of sleepless nights, when she would pad round her Los Angeles residence unhappy and insecure and annoyed. She had been one of the best on this planet in tennis. How may she be unhealthy on the most pure factor, one thing girls have been doing for hundreds of years and that everybody else made look really easy? 

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Osaka on the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane simply after Christmas (Bradley Kanaris/Getty Photos)

“Towards the tail end of pregnancy, I was very scared, there were always thoughts in my head: ‘Am I going be a good mom? How will I know if she appreciates how I parent?’ Things like that,” she provides. “I am still a little bit nervous but, I don’t know, the more I talk to moms, the more I realize that everyone goes through that,” she says. “It’s OK to have those feelings because that’s how much you love your baby, and that’s how much you want to do good by them.”

Fissette mentioned Duguid known as him in mid-August, searching for recommendation on hiring a coach. On the time, Fissette was in his first months of teaching Zheng Qinwen, a rising star from China. He was nonetheless making an attempt to get to know her and click on in the way in which he had with Osaka and Victoria Azarenka. 

He and Duguid met once more on the U.S. Open in September, the place Zheng made her first Grand Slam quarter-final and Osaka appeared with swimmer Michael Phelps and Vivek Murthy, the surgeon basic, to talk about psychological well being. It was there that she affirmed her intention to play in 2024. By the top of the month, Fissette had give up teaching Zheng and introduced he would coach Osaka.

Zheng mentioned she was blindsided and heartbroken. Fissette mentioned he was going to cease teaching Zheng regardless of Osaka. He has nothing however reward for Zheng — “a super nice girl” who all the time labored onerous — however they merely didn’t click on.

“I’ve worked with a few players where I thought it was the ideal coach-player relationship,” he mentioned. “Great communication, always great energy. I always felt like I had an impact with my coaching.”

Then it was time to take a seat down with Osaka for an sincere discuss. She advised him there was nothing whimsical about this subsequent tennis enterprise. It wasn’t about enjoying the following yr. It was in regards to the subsequent 5 or seven years, sufficient so she may compete for an important titles with Shai watching.

“Since I came here, I felt those words every single day,” Fissette mentioned. “She’s like the happy kid on the court.”


Given the grueling and largely monastic life that Osaka has embraced to turn into the model of herself that may compete with Swiatek and Co, happiness is not any small factor.

She and Shai are up by 7 a.m. Like most infants, Shai is at her greatest within the morning. So Osaka likes to play along with her for an hour and a half earlier than she leaves for coaching, although there are mornings when Zitzelsberger will need her to do a cardio exercise earlier than breakfast to enhance her metabolism. Her eating regimen has consisted of a mixture of lean meats (she has all the time liked sushi, which helps), fruits and greens and protein shakes. She and Zitzelsberger saved an eye fixed on the clock, too, since she was, at occasions, “interval fasting”, which necessitates consuming healthfully and plentifully inside an eight-hour window, and fasting for the opposite 16 hours of the day. Usually, she was on the Sherman Oaks home that serves as her coaching middle by 9am.

Zitzelsberger has labored with postpartum athletes earlier than. The preliminary work, he mentioned, focuses on rebuilding the core, which has softened for childbirth.

Osaka was no totally different. The energy of a tennis shot begins with a push from the toes, rises by way of the ankle, masses by way of the pelvis, hips and trunk and travels by way of the shoulder and into the arm. The hand is merely a whip. However to operate correctly, each hyperlink in that kinetic chain must be optimized. 

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Osaka alongside Murthy and Phelps at a psychological well being discussion board on the U.S. Open in September (Timothy A Clary/AFP through Getty Photos)

Osaka’s every day preparation for her comeback began with an osteopathic therapy to align her physique. That therapy lasted 30-45 minutes. Then she endured one other 30-45 minutes of dynamic stretching and drills that accentuated change of path, leaping, sprints, acceleration, deceleration and stopping. That helped to arrange each joint and made certain they had been functioning optimally for tennis. She then spent roughly two and a half hours on the courtroom. A 60-minute power and motion exercise adopted. 

Zitzelsberger prefers free weights, which he mentioned enhance steadiness. Osaka did rep after rep of light-weight (for her) deadlifts, squats, and lunges with kettlebells, although typically Zitzelsberger requested for 2 fast reps with most weight to construct explosive energy. There was a post-training therapy, and Osaka headed residence round 3pm. 

There, she napped if Shai was napping, however in any other case, she performed and cared for her till about 7.30pm. She put Shai to sleep, and then headed to mattress shortly after. (Shai didn’t make the journey to Australia, as a result of of the lengthy flight, however Osaka plans to take her along with her the remainder of the season.)

Zitzelsberger and Fissette stood shut to one another by way of practically each apply, all the time making an attempt to determine the best way to higher practice Osaka’s physique to assist the participant she must be. She and her staff have accepted that the serve-forehand model of Osaka that topped the rankings 4 years in the past wouldn’t be capable of bully the competitors across the courtroom the way in which she used to. 

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Gamers are shifting so significantly better now, Fissette says. Even essentially the most offensive gamers, like Swiatek, are phenomenal defenders — Osaka had been good defensively, not nice. She wants drop pictures to make opponents transfer as she by no means has to earlier than, and volleys to shut out factors within the entrance of the courtroom.

In mid-December, they had been centered on making her legs and core sturdy sufficient to hit an open-stance backhand with energy, one thing solely a few gamers on this planet — Novak Djokovic, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, Swiatek — can do. It’s a defensive shot that a choose few can use offensively. The open stance permits for a faster restoration. However the trick is with the ability to bend and generate energy from an especially awkward place.

Enter Simone Elliott, a ballet dancer from Seattle who spent a lot of the previous three many years dancing with corporations in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. These days, she has been working with skiers, tennis gamers, soccer gamers and different athletes to refine their actions. Followers of German staff Borussia Dortmund have Elliott to thank each time goalkeeper Alexander Meyer dives to deflect a shot with the ideas of his fingers. 

Elliott, 36, mentioned she feels a particular kinship with tennis gamers. Like many of them, she left residence at 15 to fly abroad and pursue her profession. In December, on the request of Fissette and Zitzelsberger, Elliott started serving to Osaka learn the way greatest to succeed in these deep positions she wanted to get into whereas chasing down balls and the best way to explode out from them. 

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Osaka hits a backhand in Brisbane (Patrick Hamilton/AFP through Getty Photos)

“It’s about getting hungry or curious about the movement that you are doing every day, investing yourself into each movement, understanding your body, understanding your breath and being present with the entire experience, and then finding that freedom within your game,” Elliott says after watching Osaka apply throughout her first week in California. 

Elliott then rises from her seat and, in a cut up second, assumes the bottom open-stance backhand place and bursts out of it effortlessly. 

“She’s a beautiful mover,” Elliott says of Osaka. 

May she have been a ballet dancer?

If she worked with that discipline and that focus,” Elliott says, “she could do whatever she put her mind to.”


Tennis is an impatient place, particularly for a former world No. 1.

A baseball participant getting back from greater than a yr away from the game would possibly spend a couple of months climbing by way of the minor leagues. Osaka headed to Australia understanding that her second event can be one of the 5 most vital occasions of the yr. Provided that she has had little success on the clay of Roland Garros or the grass of Wimbledon, it’s most likely the second most vital one for her, behind solely the U.S. Open. 

Fissette has tried to minimize the significance of Osaka’s preliminary outcomes. He described Australia as “a big test for us to see where we are at, but Australia is just the beginning”.

The purpose, he mentioned, is to have Osaka rounding into high kind through the summer season onerous courtroom swing in North America. He’s certain that may occur, “as long as she can really stay in this mindset where she wants to just grow every day”.

In her final stint on the tour, Osaka struggled with the inevitable losses and stumbles that occur to even one of the best tennis gamers. At her first event again in Brisbane, the place she received her opening match towards Tamara Korpatsch of Germany, Osaka spoke of trying to find methods to attract vitality from the hubbub that may encompass her, taking off her headphones to offer again some of the love she has lengthy acquired in a manner that by no means got here naturally for a girl who, as a woman, was painfully shy. She mentioned that she imagined her daughter watching her as she performed and as she signed autographs, she envisioned Shai being one of the children reaching out to her with a Sharpie. 

She desires to depart the game higher than how she discovered it. Gamers have thanked her for bringing to gentle the psychological pressure that information conferences could cause. That meant a lot. 

She desires the following gifted woman who involves the game from cracked public courts to have a neater time than she and her sister did, to not get dissed by the potential sponsor that blew off her household as a result of, even after the Williams sisters, how may women coming from an atmosphere like that attain the highest of the sport?

“They knew that we were good enough, but it was just like the circumstances of what we were in,” she says. “A lot of kids that we probably don’t even see are so amazing and talented, but since they aren’t given the grants or the opportunities, we just never see them to their full potential.”

That’s what she’s going after now — her full potential, off the courtroom and on it, too, the place she is satisfied one of the best Naomi is but to return.

“I’m actually, like, striking a really great backhand now,” she says.

(Lead graphic: John Bradford; Pictures: Chris Hyde, Getty)