Naomi Osaka ‘at peace’ heading into Indian Wells

Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka returns to Indian Wells, the scene of her breakthrough triumph in 2018, with a new outlook on a tennis career that plunged into turmoil in 2021.

The Japanese star will take the court for the first time since a third-round exit in her Australian Open title defense in January when she faces Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, in a first-round match at the prestigious hardcourt tournament in the California desert.

Osaka said she feels a new sense of confidence after her well-documented struggles in 2021 — which put a spotlight on the mental health of athletes in a wide range of sports.

She said even her loss to American Amanda Anisimova in Melbourne reassured her she was on the right path.

“Honestly, I feel like I’m at peace with myself, which I think is a great feeling to have as a person,” Osaka said Wednesday.

“For me, the biggest focus this year is, of course, I want to do well in every tournament,” she added.

“But I think just knowing that I tried as hard as I could and I enjoyed myself … I felt the difference in Australia.

“I actually left the court thinking, ‘You know what, I did my best.’ And I had match points. That was pretty good.”

Osaka withdrew from the French Open last year and skipped Wimbledon, saying she had struggled with depression. She was eliminated early at the Tokyo Olympics. She then made a tearful early exit at the U.S. Open and announced she would take a hiatus from tennis.

“I’ve learned to enjoy my time more,” she said. “This moment in my life, playing tennis, I’ve trained my entire life for it. But when I’m 70, it will probably be a small chapter for me. So I have to enjoy it while I still can.

“I’m just trying to appreciate every tournament.”

Osaka said she’d been encouraged not only by her own ability to enjoy herself more since her return to the court, but also by the new expectations of fans she’s encountered as she goes about her pre-tournament business at Indian Wells.

“I’m really grateful because I was watching qualifying the other day here and was walking around and usually when I walk around, people are like ‘win the tournament, I have tickets to the final’ kind of thing,” Osaka said.

“And, actually people were just saying, ‘I hope you have fun.’ I know that’s not the biggest difference, but it really meant a lot to me.”

Osaka said she doesn’t “live in the past anymore” but acknowledged it was nice to be back in Indian Wells, the WTA 1000 tournament she won in 2018 to claim her first title

Osaka was unseeded then, beating top-ranked Simona Halep in the semifinals on the way to what was the biggest title of her career.

In her first appearance in three years, she is in rebuild mode. Her Australian Open exit saw her drop out of the top-80 in the world and she drew a tough first-round clash against Stephens — who ended a four-year title drought with a victory in Guadalajara two weeks ago.

“I’m going to have to put a lot of energy into that,” Osaka said.

Although neither enjoys the first-round bye afforded the top 32 seeds, Osaka and Stephens are among the biggest names in a field that is missing top-ranked Ashleigh Barty and world No. 2 Barbora Krejcikova.

Barty withdrew saying she had not yet recovered from her triumphant Australian Open campaign, and the woman she beat in the Melbourne final, American Danielle Collins, was also a late withdrawal with an unspecified injury.

Krejcikova, the reigning French Open champion, pulled out with an elbow injury.

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