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The comeback road is long and arduous, says Naomi Osaka ahead of Abu Dhabi Open

Former world number one Naomi Osaka is under no illusions as to the challenge that awaits her if she is to return to the upper echelons of women's tennis.

At the beginning of 2023, Osaka announced she was out for the season as she was expecting her first child. 

The Japanese star then made her return to tennis at the 2024 Brisbane International, where she got one win under her belt but lost in the second round to veteran Karoline Pliskova. Following that, Oskao was bundled out in the first round of the Australian Open, losing in straight sets to 16th seed Caroline Garcia. 

The losses were an indication that Osaka has a difficult road ahead if she is to reach the heights of her early career, where she won two slams and reached the world number one ranking.

The road is made even more difficult by the form of Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek and Elena Rybakina - to name a few - who have shared some the WTA Tour's biggest titles in Osaka's absence. 

"I'm at a weird point right now in this comeback," the 26-year-old told UAE publication The National this week. 

"I, obviously, have so much respect for them and everything that they've done. But I don't really see myself as a challenger, which is a weird thing.

"It's really bold to say but I know what I'm capable of, and I know people are going to probably drag me for saying this, but I don't think it's a stretch for me to say that I see myself there. And I hope that I can get there this year, hopefully towards the tail-end of the year. But if not, I'm okay with being patient, I've always been a patient person, so I'll get there eventually."

Osaka also opened up on the challenge of being away from her daughter, Shai. The long trip to Australia was the first time the new mother had been separated from Shai… and it played on her mind.  

"In Australia, it was really tough, I think that would be the main reason why I was so upset," continued the two-time Australian Open winner.

"But I think now I'm doing better and I'm learning you can't win every week, and you can't really control certain things. You can only control how much work you put in.

"For me, regardless of the outcome, I think Shai will know – well she won't know now, she's just doing her own thing, but she'll know that I tried my best and the only intent was for her life to be better."

Now, ahead of her appearance at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open this week, Osaka is motivated by her daughter.

"I don't know how to describe this but every day that I wake up and I get new videos of Shai, I feel refreshed and I feel like, this is why I'm playing," she said.

"And when I'm able to go back home and spend a lot of time with her, it completely clears my mind. So I haven't felt mentally exhausted or anything. I don't know what's going to happen later in the season but I'm feeling pretty optimistic about it."

Osaka faces American Danielle Collins in the first round of the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open on Tuesday, where Rybakina, Ons Jabuer and Maria Sakkari lead the women's seeds.

READ MORE: Winless Andy Murray has no immediate plans to call time on his career
 

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