The Osaka who returned to Grand Slam competition at the U.S. Open this week displayed no such doubt. In a neon yellow dress as bright as the sun, she stepped onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium to hearty cheers Monday and made quick work of her first-round opponent, Marie Bouzkova.
In terms of tennis, Osaka appears to have reclaimed the powerful serve and strokes that are the foundation of her game. Off the court, she boasts something new — something she has been working on during her self-imposed exile these past 10 weeks in which she also skipped Wimbledon.
In the same way a driven tennis player hones a passing shot, a drop shot, or an approach shot Osaka, at 23, has been working on a new approach to life that she shared in a recent Instagram post.
“Recently I’ve been asking myself why do I feel the way I do and I realize one of the reasons is because internally I think I’m never good enough,” she wrote. “I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job but I do know I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better.”
Going forward, Osaka added, she is determined to be less self-critical and to celebrate herself, which she suggested others do as well.
Osaka elaborated on her new mind-set during a late-night news conference that followed her 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Osaka said. “For me, something that’s less than perfection, even though it might be something great, is a disappointment. I don’t really think that’s a healthy way of thinking. So [it’s] something that I really wanted to change.”
On the tennis court, Osaka explained, that means learning to be happy with a less-than-perfect performance as long as she does her best.
In life, it has broader ramifications.
“It's more like a realization thing,” Osaka explained. “I should believe more in myself.”
It was a basic yet stunning admission from the two-time and defending U.S. Open champion — a competitor who has more majors than any woman in the tournament’s 128-player field and ample reason to count herself a favorite.
And it is one of several dichotomies that have made Osaka such an intriguing figure as she struggles to strike a balance between her private nature and the outsize notoriety that has come to her since she toppled 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open at age 20.
While Osaka has said that news conferences cause her anxiety, she typically fields questions expansively and with disarming candor — as she has in her two U.S. Open news conferences since returning to competition.
What makes Osaka a formidable champion is plain to see.
It’s a combination of power, on-court smarts and mettle. She has never been intimidated by big stages, big-name opponents or big moments. While outwardly humble and self-effacing, she doesn’t flinch under pressure. Osaka has reached four Grand Slam finals and won them all — the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Open and the 2019 and 2021 Australian Open.
She is also skilled.
“Naomi is a pure ball-striker,” said top-ranked Ash Barty, a two-time Grand Slam champion. “When she has time to set up, particularly after her first serve, she’s one of the best first-serve, first-strike players I’ve ever come up against.”
As the U.S. Open’s No. 3 seed, Osaka will probably need her best tennis to negotiate her tricky quarter of the draw, which includes a potential fourth-round meeting with three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber or American teen Coco Gauff, whom she narrowly defeated in three sets in a recent tuneup in Cincinnati.
What makes Osaka such an intriguing figure off the court is multilayered.
Reflecting on the public stance she took at the French Open in late May, announcing on social media that she would not do post-match interviews, Osaka said on the eve of the U.S. Open she mishandled things in Paris But she added that she is also an “in the moment” type of person, prone to say whatever she feels. “I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” she said, adding that she didn’t anticipate “how big of a deal it would become. ”
But in speaking her mind — and drawing a $15,000 fine and threat of disqualification from French Open officials — Osaka spoke for countless athletes who have wrestled with mental health issues in silence.
She didn’t realize how many, she recently explained, until she took part in the Tokyo Olympics and had so many athletes come up and thank her. “So after all that, I'm proud of what I did,” Osaka said. “And I think it was something that needed to be done.”
At last year’s spectator-free U.S. Open, Osaka spoke out powerfully without uttering a word by wearing seven masks on court, each with the name of a Black victim of racial injustice and police brutality.
She is at turns masterful at using her considerable global platform and taken aback by her own impact.
But it is Osaka’s job to reconcile the aspects of her personality that sometimes perplex others. Her job is tennis, and her focus, at the moment, is contesting the U.S. Open with a healthy mind-set.
“In this tournament I just want to be happy with knowing that I did my best and knowing that even though I didn’t play perfect, I was able to win a match in two sets, or if I have to battle, play a match in three sets,” Osaka said. “[To] know that I made a couple mistakes, but it’s okay at the end of the day because I’ll learn from the matches that I’ll keep playing.”