Sports

Naomi Osaka, The Comeback Interview: A tale of pregnancy, fear and a ballerina

It was late September when Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion and transcendent star of her sport, finally got on the phone with her former coach to talk about her next comeback. 

Wim Fissette is a cerebral Belgian who thinks long and hard before taking on a player, even one with a resume like Osaka’s. He had one, very serious question.

Is it going to be different this time?

There was then another conversation, with Florian Zitzelsberger, a 34-year-old German who is one of the most respected strength and conditioning coaches in the world. Zitzelsberger had worked with Osaka before, too. He asked her the same question, and another important one, too. 

Why?

World-class tennis players worth hundreds of millions of dollars are not used to pushback like this. They get what they ask for, when they ask for it, and don’t get a lot of questions about it. 

But Fissette and Zitzelsberger had been down this road with Osaka, 26, who is maybe the most naturally talented and athletic player on Earth. She also has a complicated relationship with the sport that made her a generational, global star unlike anything women’s tennis had ever seen. She staged comebacks after extended breaks in 2021, and then again in 2022. Both got cut short because of injuries, struggles with mental health and, in the case of this latest one, the birth of Osaka’s first child, Shai, a daughter, in July.


Osaka returned to competition in Australia last week (Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

Everyone asks Osaka these questions. Osaka, a walking billboard for intentionality, has answers. Do not mistake that soft, sing-songy, often quizzical voice for a lack of fortitude.

This a woman who, as a barely known and shy 20-year-old, thumped Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final in 2018, even as the match descended into chaos, with the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis and a teeming crowd of 23,000 doing everything in their power to topple her. 

Osaka brought tennis to a halt amid continuing police violence against Black people in August 2020. Then she brought seven masks adorned with the names of victims of police violence to the U.S. Open that year — one for each match she intended to play, and did, as she won the title. In 2021, she forced a conversation about mental health by skipping her news conference at the French Open. When officials threatened to toss her from the competition, she withdrew, and made them look foolish for their overreach and lack of empathy. 


Excited about the Australian Open? Then follow The Athletic’s tennis coverage here


So of course she had answers for Fissette, for Zitzelsberger and for anyone else who wanted 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 last month beside the practice court in Sherman Oaks that became her main place of work early in 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 reason, too. The last time Osaka had been on a competitive tennis court, she withdrew from the Toray Pan Pacific Open in her native Japan with abdominal pain. She was not going to let that be her walk-off. 

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


For the final three months of 2023, that private court at a sprawling home in the heart of the San Fernando Valley that her team has rented was the headquarters of Osaka 2.0, or maybe it’s 3.0. She is calling everything that came before this “Chapter 1”. What comes next is “Chapter 2”. 

This December morning, she is smashing through a practice set with Andrew Rogers, a former star at Pepperdine University and the University of Tennessee, who is part of a rotating cast of male practice partners that Fissette has brought in. Osaka’s skin glistens in the sun as she chases down balls in the corners, defending with a new energy that hasn’t always been there. 

On a changeover, Fissette tells her to find that balance between rushing a point and being too passive. Maybe it takes hitting two balls to get the point where you want it to go, he tells her as she stares out at the court rather than at him. 

Moments later, she blasts her serve, once one of the game’s most potent weapons, sending Rogers way wide. She jumps into forehand returns. She charges into the court to take backhands early. And, of course, because she is Osaka, she makes sure to say, “Nice serve,” when Rogers aces her.

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

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


Naomi Osaka with practice partner Andrew Rogers (far left) and coaches Wim Fissette (holding racket) and Florian Zitzelsberger (far right) (Matt Futterman/The Athletic)

But will it be enough? Is there a version of Osaka that is good enough to compete with the best of the best in the women’s game — the power of Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka, the savvy and relentless defense of Coco Gauff, the guile and athleticism of Marketa Vondrousova, the grit of Jessica Pegula? How soon can she find it? Will she want it too much?

“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.”

Women’s tennis has evolved since Osaka last ruled it. Fissette and Zitzelsberger are assuming that what she was will not be good enough. Last month, they even brought in a ballet dancer who has worked with Zitzelsberger’s other athletes to help Osaka improve her movement and raise her game to the place where Fissette always thought she could go — if her mind was fully committed to the task.

“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.”


Osaka could have never played a competitive match again and still likely made the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She could have walked away as one of the wealthiest women in the history of sports. At her peak, when she was winning championships and lighting the Olympic flame in Tokyo, she had as many as 15 sponsors and was taking in an estimated $50 million a year in endorsements and prize money for multiple years. Handled properly, that is generational wealth.

Two years ago, she and her agent, Stuart Duguid, were waiting in a lounge at a Tokyo airport getting ready to fly back from the Olympics when their conversation turned to empire building in the fashion of Osaka’s friends and mentors — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant. Both remember the conversation like it was yesterday. 

“All these male athletes have platforms and production companies, why does no female athlete have that?” Duguid asked one evening last month at an Adweek conference in Los Angeles, where he and Osaka were featured speakers. 


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

Together, they have embarked on creating their own empire. She and Duguid launched an agency, Evolve, which is now working with other athletes and also golf’s LPGA and soccer’s NWSL. They began investing in companies. They founded a production company, Hana Kuma, her version of James’ Uninterrupted. 

Osaka knows that playing tennis and winning championships will help build her empire. But returning to tennis wasn’t simply a business decision or a way to make her daughter proud. It was something visceral.

Last January, in her fourth month of pregnancy, she didn’t watch the year’s first Grand Slam

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

She also limited how much she watched the rest of the year. 

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

Anyone who caught a glimpse of Osaka watching the U.S. Open, from the front row of Arthur Ashe Stadium, her face a combination of bitter and blank, could see she was not content being an observer. Zitzelsberger said Osaka’s goals go far beyond participation.


Osaka and coach Fissette work in Brisbane last week (Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

“She wants to be the world No 1 again,” he says after practice one day a few weeks ago. “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 back onto a tennis court in mid-August, a little more than a month after giving birth on July 3. It was just a casual hit, but even after so many months away, her feel for the ball was still there, an overwhelming relief. 

Rediscovering her movement was trickier. 

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

She wanted to get back to training as soon as she could realistically pursue it. She knew her main priority was mothering Shai, something she was still learning how to do. 

It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of sleepless nights, when she would pad around her Los Angeles home sad and insecure and frustrated. She had been the best in the world in tennis. How could she be bad at the most natural thing, something women have been doing for thousands of years and that everyone else made look so easy? 


Osaka at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane just after Christmas (Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

“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 adds. “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 said Duguid called him in mid-August, looking for advice on hiring a coach. At the time, Fissette was in his first months of coaching Zheng Qinwen, a rising star from China. He was still trying to get to know her and click in the way he had with Osaka and Victoria Azarenka. 

He and Duguid met again at the U.S. Open in September, where Zheng made her first Grand Slam quarter-final and Osaka appeared with swimmer Michael Phelps and Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, to speak about mental health. It was there that she affirmed her intention to play in 2024. By the end of the month, Fissette had quit coaching Zheng and announced he would coach Osaka.

Zheng said she was blindsided and heartbroken. Fissette said he was going to stop coaching Zheng regardless of Osaka. He has nothing but praise for Zheng — “a super nice girl” who always worked hard — but they simply did not click.

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

Then it was time to sit down with Osaka for an honest talk. She told him there was nothing whimsical about this next tennis venture. It wasn’t about playing the next year. It was about the next five or seven years, enough so she could compete for the most important titles with Shai watching.

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


Given the grueling and largely monastic life that Osaka has embraced to become the version of herself that can compete with Swiatek and Co, happiness is no small thing.

She and Shai are up by 7 a.m. Like most babies, Shai is at her best in the morning. So Osaka likes to play with her for an hour and a half before she leaves for training, though there are mornings when Zitzelsberger will want her to do a cardio workout before breakfast to improve her metabolism. Her diet has consisted of a combination of lean meats (she has always loved sushi, which helps), fruits and vegetables and protein shakes. She and Zitzelsberger kept an eye on the clock, too, since she was, at times, “interval fasting”, which necessitates eating healthfully and plentifully within an eight-hour window, and fasting for the other 16 hours of the day. Normally, she was at the Sherman Oaks house that serves as her training center by 9am.

Zitzelsberger has worked with postpartum athletes before. The initial work, he said, focuses on rebuilding the core, which has softened for childbirth.

Osaka was no different. The power of a tennis shot starts with a push from the toes, rises through the ankle, loads through the pelvis, hips and trunk and travels through the shoulder and into the arm. The hand is merely a whip. But to function properly, every link in that kinetic chain has to be optimized. 


Osaka alongside Murthy and Phelps at a mental health forum at the U.S. Open in September (Timothy A Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Osaka’s daily preparation for her comeback started with an osteopathic treatment to align her body. That treatment lasted 30-45 minutes. Then she endured another 30-45 minutes of dynamic stretching and drills that accentuated change of direction, jumping, sprints, acceleration, deceleration and stopping. That helped to prepare every joint and made sure they were functioning optimally for tennis. She then spent roughly two and a half hours on the court. A 60-minute strength and movement workout followed. 

Zitzelsberger prefers free weights, which he said improve balance. Osaka did rep after rep of lightweight (for her) deadlifts, squats, and lunges with kettlebells, though sometimes Zitzelsberger asked for two quick reps with maximum weight to build explosive power. There was a post-training treatment, and Osaka headed home around 3pm. 

There, she napped if Shai was napping, but otherwise, she played and cared for her until about 7.30pm. She put Shai to sleep, and then headed to bed shortly after. (Shai didn’t make the trip to Australia, because of the long flight, but Osaka plans to take her with her the rest of the season.)

Zitzelsberger and Fissette stood close to each other through nearly every practice, always trying to figure out how to better train Osaka’s body to support the player she needs to be. She and her team have accepted that the serve-forehand version of Osaka that topped the rankings four years ago would not be able to bully the competition around the court the way she used to. 

Players are moving so much better now, Fissette says. Even the most offensive players, like Swiatek, are phenomenal defenders — Osaka had been good defensively, not great. She needs drop shots to make opponents move as she never has to before, and volleys to close out points in the front of the court.

In mid-December, they were focused on making her legs and core strong enough to hit an open-stance backhand with power, something only a few players in the world — Novak Djokovic, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, Swiatek — can do. It’s a defensive shot that a select few can use offensively. The open stance allows for a quicker recovery. But the trick is being able to bend and generate power from an extremely awkward position.

Enter Simone Elliott, a ballet dancer from Seattle who spent much of the past three decades dancing with companies in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Lately, she has been working with skiers, tennis players, soccer players and other athletes to refine their movements. Fans of German team Borussia Dortmund have Elliott to thank every time goalkeeper Alexander Meyer dives to deflect a shot with the tips of his fingers. 

Elliott, 36, said she feels a special kinship with tennis players. Like many of them, she left home at 15 to fly overseas and pursue her career. In December, at the request of Fissette and Zitzelsberger, Elliott began helping Osaka learn how best to reach those deep positions she needed to get into while chasing down balls and how to explode out from them. 


Osaka hits a backhand in Brisbane (Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

“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 practice during her first week in California. 

Elliott then rises from her seat and, in a split second, assumes the lowest open-stance backhand position and bursts out of it effortlessly. 

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

Could 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, especially for a former world No. 1.

A baseball player coming back from more than a year away from the sport might spend a couple of months climbing through the minor leagues. Osaka headed to Australia knowing that her second tournament would be one of the five most important events of the year. Given that she has had little success on the clay of Roland Garros or the grass of Wimbledon, it’s probably the second most important one for her, behind only the U.S. Open. 

Fissette has tried to play down the importance of Osaka’s initial results. He described Australia as “a big test for us to see where we are at, but Australia is just the beginning”.

The goal, he said, is to have Osaka rounding into top form during the summer hard court swing in North America. He is sure that can happen, “as long as she can really stay in this mindset where she wants to just grow every day”.

In her last stint on the tour, Osaka struggled with the inevitable losses and stumbles that happen to even the best tennis players. At her first tournament back in Brisbane, where she won her opening match against Tamara Korpatsch of Germany, Osaka spoke of searching for ways to draw energy from the hubbub that will surround her, taking off her headphones to give back some of the love she has long received in a way that never came naturally for a woman who, as a girl, was painfully shy. She said that she imagined her daughter watching her as she played and as she signed autographs, she envisioned Shai being one of the kids reaching out to her with a Sharpie. 

She wants to leave the sport better than how she found it. Players have thanked her for bringing to light the mental strain that news conferences can cause. That meant a lot. 

She wants the next gifted girl who comes to the sport from cracked public courts to have an easier time than she and her sister did, to not get dissed by the potential sponsor that blew off her family because, even after the Williams sisters, how could girls coming from an environment like that reach the top of the game?

“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 court and on it, too, where she is convinced the best Naomi is yet to come.

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

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