February 28, 2024

Open Court


BRISBANE, Australia – When Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter/X that it had been awhile since she’d been to Brisbane – confirming that would be where she begins her post-break, post-maternity leave comeback – she wasn’t kidding.

It’s been nearly four years since her first trip. And how things have changed.

That was before the pandemic (just before it; two months later the world was turned upside down). And it was before Osaka took breaks to heal issues both mental and physical. And before she left the Tour to have her baby girl.

Unlike four years ago, she did not arrive via helicopter. 🤣

Brisbane 2020 was a pretty bizarre tournament. Until the Thursday, the big stadium was taken up with group-stage matches for the inaugural ATP Cup which featured Serbia, Australia and Canada.

The women – with a massive field including Ashleigh Barty – were relegated to the back courts. That included wild card Maria Sharapova playing in front of about 100 people, while the roars of the Aussie fans could be heard next door in the stadium. It was the penultimate match of Sharapova’s career (she lost in a third-set tiebreak to Jennifer Brady) before her finale at the Australian Open some weeks later.

Osaka, the No. 3 seed, beat Maria Sakkari in three sets, Sofia Kenin (who won the Australian Open some weeks later) in three sets and Kiki Berten in three sets before falling to No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals – also in three sets.

The 2024 edition will be back to normal, with the women’s tournament a 500, and the men a smaller-scale ATP 250.

But if Osaka gets through her first match, she might meet Pliskova again.

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Brisbane 2020 also the debut of Osaka-Fissette

That tournament was also the debut tournament for Osaka with her new coach Wim Fissette.

She had ushered Sascha Bajin, then a longtime hitting partner elevated to coach status with whom she won her first major, out the door in early 2019, and then worked with Jermaine Jenkins.

Osaka parted ways with Fissette last August, having already lost in the first round at Roland Garros and missed the entire grass-court season. Her father, who coached her most of her life, was re-installed as her “main coach”.

After that, Osaka’s final tournaments before a break that will have totaled about 15 months were complicated.

After a couple of months away in 2022, the Japanese-American returned in San Jose. And as it happened, her last victory in a completed match came in the first round there against Zheng Qinwen, who hadn’t yet broken into the top 50.

There was drama there, as Osaka won a tug-of-war for trainer Abdul Sillah with Bianca Andreescu, essentially poaching Sillah from Andreescu’s (then) solid, since decimated team.

It proved a pyrrhic victory, as Osaka retired down a set and 3-0 to Kaia Kanepi in Toronto, lost in the first round of Cincinnati to Zhang Shuai, and lost in the first round of the US Open to Danielle Collins. Then, in Tokyo – given the breadth of her endorsements in Japan, this was no doubt a required tournament for her – she got through the first round after Daria Saville destroyed her knee in the second game of the match.

She then withdrew before her second-round clash with Beatriz Haddad Maia.

That was the last time we saw her.

Rebuilding Team Osaka

The first move Osaka made as she began training for her comeback was to get Fissette back.

This required Osaka to poach the Belgian away from Zheng (see above), and the rising Japanese star was pretty devastated.

The two have a number of months together to prepare her return, although as captain of the Belgian BJK Cup team, Fissette had another commitment the last few weeks.

Her next move was to repatriate Florian Zitzelsberger, who told the WTA website his title is “head of health and performance” – strength and conditioning coach, athletic coach, physiotherapist, nutritionaist and osteopath.

Zitzelsberger had been working with Germany’s Jule Niemeier. This is obviously a far more glorious gig.

And it meant that Sillah, who had been Team Osaka, was out. It’s quite likely not a coincidence that the change occurred as Fissette returned to the fold.

Osaka will also have to navigate the publication of a book about her by tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg which – if what we were told about some of the subject matter by a person who has read it is accurate – will definitely make some waves. That will be released next week.

There will be a number of returns to the WTA Tour in 2024 – Angelique Kerber, the continuation of Caroline Wozniacki’s auspicious comeback began this summer, Emma Raducanu, Bianca Andreescu (at some point).

But none of those willn hold a candle to the anticipation that will greet Osaka’s return to the court.

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