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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Tuesday April 27, 2021

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is eager to take the next step in her clay game this year, starting this weekend at the Madrid Open.

Photo Source: MM Open

Naomi Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam champion, and many believe the Japanese star will be the most dominant player that the sport has seen since Serena Williams when all is said and done. But in order to fulfill that prophecy the 23-year-old will have to expand her Grand Slam empire off of the hard courts and onto the clay and grass that highlight the summer Slam season in tennis.

Tennis Express

This week Osaka, who owns a lifetime record of 18-13 on clay, is in Madrid and ready to tackle the first of the two-headed “natural surface” monster.

She is well-rested and ready for the challenge.

“After Miami I took, like, a bit of a break because I felt like I needed to slow my mind down a little bit,” Osaka told reporters. “But, yeah, I feel for me it's exciting to go into the clay court swing because I haven't won a tournament on clay yet. Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of stress because I really want to do well here.

Osaka is 12-1 in 2021 and 28-3 since the start of 2020, but none of those matches have been played on clay or grass. That will change this week when Osaka takes her place in the Mutua Madrid Open draw as the No.2 seed.

She won’t be able to ease into things. Osaka will face either Karolina Muchova or Wang Qiang in the second round (after her first-round bye), and could face Maria Sakkari or Annett Kontaveit if she gets past that first test.

Osaka said she took time off after Miami in order to decompress after a busy time professionally.

“I felt like I needed it because after Australia I had like one day of rest, then I immediately started working. It wasn't tennis, but other stuff. For me, I just felt like the hard court swing, the Australian hard court swing, plus Miami, was kind of compressed for me. I didn't really have time to see my family because I haven't seen them since Christmas before I went down to Florida. I just wanted to spend time with them and chill out a little bit.”

Osaka has made two appearances in Madrid, in 2018 and 2019, and she reached the quarterfinals in the latter appearance, before losing to Belinda Bencic in three tight sets.

It was the beginning of a solid clay season for Osaka, who also reached the quarterfinals at Rome before bowing out in the third round at Roland-Garros—her best performance in Paris to date.

Osaka is 6-4 lifetime at Roland-Garros with three third round appearances to her name. But she is just 2-3 against the Top 50 in Paris. Clearly there is work to do for her on clay, based on her limited body of work on the surface and the fact that she isn’t a natural mover on clay.

Martina Navratilova, 18-time major singles champion, would agree with that assessment, but she doesn't think it's too much of a hurdle that Osaka can't overcome it.

"The potential is there, no doubt about it," she said of Osaka's chances on clay and grass during a Tennis Channel conference call last month. "As for not winning, she hasn't won on the clay or the grass, I'm sorry, but the surfaces are much more similar than they used to be. Grass is slower, clay is faster, the balls are faster. You don't have to make nearly as much of an adjustment as you need to. And the clay, the adjustments come in terms of movement. I don't see Naomi being that confident with her sliding. But then Andre Agassi won the French Open without sliding. It can be done. But it just makes life easier when you slide and you're comfortable with timing with your strokes. There's no doubt that she has the game to win both on the clay and the grass."

Trying Not to Stress

Osaka says she’s trying not to be stressed about it, but it’s not easy.

“I do better when I don't stress myself out and tell myself that I have to win a tournament,” she said. “But it's really hard to fight that feeling when, I don't know, you really want something.”

The World No.2 knows she is better off working on things that he can improve in her clay game. The rest, she hopes, will take care of itself.

“Honestly, for me, I would like to be better at certain things,” she said. “I'm pretty sure [my coach] wants me to be better at certain things, too. I think that's a process of not being that comfortable on a surface and trying to build on it. I think we have a lot of time. Of course, we don't have a lot of time before this tournament, but I feel like I just really need to play matches on clay to pinpoint what I could do better, as well.”


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