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Osaka's clay game improving as she prepares for French Open return

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ROME (AP) — A first career victory over a top-20 player on clay. In heavy and slow conditions. In a match that was suspended for about an hour because of rain.

Naomi Osaka couldn’t be happier with her progress at the Italian Open, where she beat 20th-ranked Marta Kostyuk 6-3, 6-2 on Thursday to follow up another straight-set win a day earlier.

More importantly, Osaka is in a good place mentally after returning to the tour from maternity leave that resulted in her missing all of 2023.

"I don’t know why, but today I just woke up very peaceful," Osaka said. "I just feel like, no matter what happens on the court, nothing will change for me off the court. Like, my daughter will still love me. I have so many people around me. … I think maybe that showed today. I hope that mentality stays and continues."

Osaka revealed issues with depression and anxiety when she withdrew from the French Open in 2021. She later took extended breaks from the game to protect her mental health.

This year’s French Open starts in less than three weeks.

"I'm just really excited to learn more about clay-court (tennis) and develop and go to Paris,” Osaka said. “Shai (her daughter) is coming to Paris, so that’s something that’s keeping me very happy.”

Formerly ranked No. 1, Osaka won four Grand Slam titles on hard courts and has always struggled on clay. Before beating Kostyuk, Osaka was 0-8 in her career against top-20 opponents on clay.

I came out with a lot of intentions, and I think I executed them,” she said. “I’m really happy.”

Osaka held a break point when the rain suspension came.

"I was pretty nervous coming back after the rain delay, just knowing that I really want to capitalize on that break point,” she said. “Excited that I was able to do that."

In her opening match, Osaka beat 45th-ranked Clara Burel 7-6 (2), 6-1 for her first victory over a top-50 player on clay since defeating Victoria Azarenka at the 2019 French Open.

"Overall, if I had to give myself a rating, I’d say that I can see a lot of progress from my last match to now," she said.

Osaka entered a small clay tournament in Rouen, France, last month and lost her opener to Martina Trevisan. Then she was beaten by 15th-seeded Liudmila Samsonova in her second match at the Madrid Open.

After Madrid, Osaka went to Mallorca for some full-immersion clay training.

"I did a really solid block of just focusing on what I want my clay court tennis to look like,: Osaka said. "I watched some videos. I watched Rafa (Nadal). I watched (Carlos) Alcaraz. I watched (Madrid champion Andrey) Rublev actually, which is very inspiring because he’s smacking the ball.

"I kind of thought to myself, 'I don’t want to have regrets when I leave the court.' In Madrid I did kind of have regrets of not swinging fully."

Osaka will next play 11th-ranked Daria Kasatkina, the highest-ranked player she’s faced this year.

"She has way more experience than me on clay. I feel like I’m still a baby giraffe, like I;m trying to learn my steps," Osaka said. "I'm just extremely humble. I want to learn from the match I played today and hopefully apply that."


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