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‘At peace’ Osaka prepared for Indian Wells challenge

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Naomi Osaka of Japan fields questions from the media during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 9. AFP

‘At peace’ Osaka prepared for Indian Wells challenge

Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka returns to Indian Wells, scene of her breakthrough triumph in 2018, with a new outlook on a tennis career 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 takes on another former major winner in Sloane Stephens in a first-round match at the prestigious hardcourt tournament in the California desert.

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

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,” she said Wednesday in comments reported by the Desert Sun newspaper.

“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. After a tearful early exit at the US Open she took an indefinite break, saying she had struggled with depression.

She said she’d been encouraged not only by her own ability to enjoy herself more since her return to 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 was unseeded when she won the 2018 Indian Wells title, beating top-ranked Simona Halep in the semi-finals on the way to what was the biggest title of her career.

In her first appearance in three years she is in rebuilding mode. Her Australian Open exit saw her drop out of the top-80 in the world and she drew a tough first-round clash with 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 sees, Osaka and Stephens are among the biggest names in a field that is missing top-ranked Ashleigh Barty and world number two 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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