Naomi Osaka has not retired from tennis just yet, but she has in all likelihood already taken a “meaningful step back” from the sport, according to journalist Ben Rothenberg.
Former world No 1 Osaka has played very little tennis over the past few years as in 2021 she competed in only eight tournaments while last year she made an appearance in 11 events – reaching just one final in both those seasons.
After missing the final few weeks of the 2022 campaign, Osaka was initially expected to make her comeback at the Australian Open, but organisers confirmed over the weekend that the two-time champion had withdrawn without giving a reason for the decision.
Her withdrawal didn’t come as a complete surprise with many believing it may be yet another indication that the four-time Grand Slam winner is about to retire.
Rothenberg, the author of Osaka’s biography which will be released later this year, says the 25-year-old is unlikely to use the word retirement, but she has probably hit the pause button already.
“I think she might want to be opaque about it because she doesn’t want to put a label on it necessarily,” he told news agency AFP.
“I don’t think she would use the word ‘retiring’, but if she was stepping away from the sport for a while – and it could be for any length of time – I don’t know that she would want to speak that out loud.
“I think she would sense that that would raise a lot of bells and whistles.”
Osaka shot to fame in 2018 when she won the US Open and the Japanese star was a dominant figure on the WTA Tour for the next few years as she went on to win the 2019 Australian Open, 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open.
But she has cut a forlorn figure on the tour in recent years – she pulled out of the French Open after the second round in 2021 after organisers threatened to expel her after she refused to do mandatory interviews.
After pulling out of the event, she opened up about her struggles with anxiety and depression and has missed several other tournaments.
Rothenberg feels Osaka doesn’t want to be a bit-part player.
“For her, the maths is not adding up right now, for her to want to make the commitment,” he said.
“She knows how much work it is and how all-encompassing and preoccupying it is to be an active full-time player with the standards that she has.
“She’s won so much already, she’s not going to be content just to be a top-20 player again.”
He added: “Whatever her reasons may be, players almost always err on the side of choosing to play.
“So for her to hit pause, I think shows a good deal of control of the situation.”
Should she eventually decide to make a comeback, Osaka will find it tough to just reach the top again, according to Rothenberg.
“She has more runway in front of her if she wants to take back off again and get back on tour,” he said.
“But it won’t get any easier with more time off. The more time she spends away, it will not get easier.”
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