1 of 3 | Naomi Osaka, the No. 2 tennis player in the world, said she learned to have a new perspective on and off the court when she had time to reflect during the COVID-19 lockdown. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, March 24 (UPI) -- Naomi Osaka used professional tennis' pandemic pause to gain a new perspective on life. The study in self-reflection has led to one of the most dominant runs of her career, including two of the last three Grand Slam titles.
"I worry about things that aren't as important as I make them seem," Osaka told reporters Tuesday during a Zoom conference at the Miami Open in Miami Gardens, Fla.
"I'm dialing down on that and trying to be more aware of my thoughts and actions. I feel like there are a lot of things I do half-heartedly. I'd love to be conscious of every action I do and how it affects people around me."
Osaka, the winner of September's 2020 U.S. Open and February's 2021 Australian Open, is on a 21-match unbeaten streak. The four-time Grand Slam champion puts that streak to the test this week in Miami Gardens, where she has never won a title.
"She [Osaka] is very consistent. She has improved a lot and is hitting a lot stronger," world No. 3 Simona Halep told reporters Tuesday during a Zoom conference.
"I've always believed she's a great player and I'm sure she will win more Grand Slams. When I've played against her, it's not easy, even if I've won."
World No. 1 Ash Barty isn't a player who watches a lot of tennis on TV, but she has recognized Osaka's surge. Osaka has the potential to snag her spot in the WTA rankings at the Miami Open.
"She is on an exceptional run, and we know she can bring her best at the biggest tournaments," Barty said Tuesday on a Zoom conference. "That's something we all strive to do, and she is doing it the best at the moment."
Motivated by new perspective
Last week, Osaka authored an article for the Wall Street Journal. The No. 2 player in the world, known for her agility, said the pandemic taught her the "beauty of stillness." That stillness was prompted when COVID-19 paused sports around the world in March 2020, including the tennis season.
Men's and women's tennis stars, who typically travel to play in tournaments from New York to Australia and several countries in-between, were off of planes and courts for five months.
Putting down the racket gave Osaka a chance to pick up newspapers, scroll news websites and immerse herself in current events, something for which she rarely made time during past tennis tours.
"It's ironic that, without travel, I became more globally aware," Osaka wrote in the Journal.
Osaka, 23, returned from the pandemic hiatus to beat Victoria Azarenka in the 2020 U.S. Open final, the first Grand Slam final of the resumed tennis season.
She exercised her new perspective before and after matches at the tournament with face mask messages directed at police brutality and social inequality.
Osaka wore a different mask for each round she played, displaying the names of Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Tamir Rice -- Black people killed or injured by police -- for the audience of millions.
She said she was motivated to advance through the tournament so she could "get the names out to as many people" as she could.
The Osaka, Japan, native says her ambition remains to make progress on the court, but said her "real success will be determined off the court." Improved communication with team members, a group of coaches, trainers and others who travel with her to tournaments, has provided balance on and off the court.
"The last year changed my approach," Osaka said. "I talk to my team a lot more.
"My biggest stress was thinking about disappointing my team with my result. If I happened to lose, I wouldn't feel sad for myself. I'd feel sad for the people who traveled with me and go through everything with me.
"I just reflected on that, and now understand I'm not perfect. I'm not going to win every match, but it's my effort level that matters."
Osaka's on-court dominance has led to significant off-court impact. In May, Forbes labeled Osaka as the highest-paid female athlete in history. She totaled more than $37 million in earnings in a 12-month period from 2019 to 2020.
She recently used some of her earnings to purchase an ownership stake in the North Carolina Courage, a women's professional soccer team. Osaka said that purchase was inspired by investments that women had made in her throughout her career.
"I don't know where I would be without them," Osaka said.
One of Osaka's first female inspirations was her older sister Mari, whom she credits as the "reason" she started playing tennis. Mari retired from professional tennis just before the sport paused for the pandemic. Naomi said she plans to assist her sister in post-tennis endeavors.
"I feel like she is really happy where she is right now, and that's the biggest thing," Osaka said. "It's great for my family to be happy and for me to be in the position to help her move toward maybe another dream she has."