Naomi Osaka overcomes panic, seeks first tennis title since mental health pause

Naomi Osaka from Japan serves to Belinda Bencic from Switzerland in a women's singles semifinal match at the Miami Open on Thursday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
1 of 5 | Naomi Osaka from Japan serves to Belinda Bencic from Switzerland in a women's singles semifinal match at the Miami Open on Thursday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla., April 1 (UPI) -- Naomi Osaka will play in her first title match Saturday at the Miami Open since her mental health hiatus from tennis more than a year ago. She said her ability to overcome panic helped her return to contender status.

Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic of Switzerland beat Osaka 6-4 in the first set of their semifinal match Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla. Osaka then rested her racket, sat down, closed her eyes and filled her cheeks with a deep breath and exhaled.


"I was thinking, I've been in this position with her before," Osaka, who entered Thursday with a four-match losing streak to Bencic, told UPI on Thursday. "I felt like all the previous times I've been panicked.

"I was telling myself, this is a really good chance to show how much you've matured. Try not to repeat the mistakes you've made before. Know there are people out there cheering for you. They are here, so you have to try your best at the very least."


Osaka found literal power in that moment, mentally and physically. She dominated the rest of the match with a 119-mph serve and 18 aces. The four-time Grand Slam champion said she also reminded herself of her new perspective on the sport.

"I'd always felt tunnel vision, but was short-breathed at the same time," Osaka said. "I felt like 'I have to win this match.' This was the only time I went into a match thinking 'I don't have to win the match, but I want to win the match.' I think that mindset change is very important."

Osaka's last semifinal win was a straight-sets sweep of Serena Williams on Feb. 17, 2021. She went on to beat Jennifer Brady three days later for the Australian Open title. A few months later, she withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon, citing her battle with anxiety and depression.

She now sees a therapist, meditates, keeps a journal, listens to a custom "Sad" playlist and uses other tools, such as deep breaths, to refocus.

"Talking to her helped me out," Osaka said of her therapist, when asked about her sessions Thursday at a news conference.


"She kinda helped me see things from a different perspective. ... I feel like there are things that can help me out and I never realized that. I'm the type of person that likes to do things myself because I don't like burdening people."

Osaka remains one of the fiercest competitors on tour, saying Thursday she would rather leave the court on "a stretcher" than be known for giving up. She retains that fire, but now can extinguish the burden of pressure with her new mental approach.

At the end of her match Thursday, she covered her face and soaked a towel with her tears, reflecting on her journey.

"The semifinals meant a lot to me," Osaka said. "Warming up, I was so nervous and wasn't moving my feet great. I wanted to go into this tournament and test myself," Osaka said at the news conference.

"I feel like she was the best opponent in the world for that. I didn't have good memories playing against her, but it wasn't relief. It was definitely happiness."

Osaka was ranked No. 2 in the world when her career-best winning streak of 23-consecutive matches ended in the 2021 Miami Open quarterfinals. That stretch included Australian Open and U.S. Open titles.


She now sits at No. 77, and was No. 85 in January, her lowest ranking since she was a teenager in 2016.

Osaka will play world No. 2 Iga Swiatek of Poland in the Miami Open women's singles final at 1 p.m. EDT Saturday in Miami Gardens. Swiatek will become the top player in the WTA rankings Monday, thanks to former world No. 1 Ash Barty's recent retirement.

"Now that I'm here, I'm just like no matter what happens, I won't let anything stop like my behavior and how I put out energy in the world," Osaka said.

"Clearly, I came here to do well, but if that doesn't happen, I just want people to remember me for being a fighter."

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