Wednesday June 19th, 2024 1:13AM

Naomi Osaka has more going on than tennis at the French Open: Her daughter is learning to walk

By The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — The big news in Naomi Osaka's life has nothing to do with the French Open or clay-court tennis: Her 10-month-old daughter, Shai, is taking her first steps.

“Yesterday, she walked for the first time, so I was really happy about that,” Osaka said at Roland Garros on Saturday, a day before the tournament begins. “We’re going to practice some more when I get back. But it’s really cool to have her here, just to see how much she’s grown and how many things she’s doing differently. It’s kind of surreal.”

As any parent knows, being distant from kids while on the road for work is not easy. Especially when the child is as little as Shai is — she will turn 1 in July.

“I mean, being away from her was really tough, but I called her every day,” said Osaka, a former No. 1-ranked player and four-time Grand Slam champion. “I saw how well she was doing and I saw how happy she was, so that made me happy, too.”

The European clay circuit began more than a month ago for Osaka in Rouen, France, then took her to Madrid and Rome. She lost her opener in Rouen, and her second match in Madrid.

But it was at the Italian Open that Osaka showed signs of having made serious strides on the slow, red surface that is not necessarily kind to her powerful strokes because it slows balls down. She had never won a match on clay against a player ranked in the top 20 until doing so twice there, getting past Marta Kostyuk and Daria Kasatkina along the way to reaching the fourth round.

“I have made a significant amount of progress, and I feel like people can kind of see that throughout the tournaments that I have played," Osaka said. "I feel like I have dedicated a lot of time to learning about clay.”

Her major titles came in 2018-21 and all on hard courts, two apiece at the U.S. Open and Australian Open. She has yet to make it past the third round in Paris or on grass at Wimbledon.

Repeated questions about difficulty on clay contributed to the anxiety and depression Osaka talked about experiencing when she declined to participate in news conferences at the 2021 French Open before withdrawing from the event. That was followed by a series of mental health breaks.

She took more time away while she was pregnant, before returning to Grand Slam action at the Australian Open this January with a first-round loss.

If Osaka can get past her opening match on Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier against Lucia Bronzetti, up next could be what amounts to the toughest task these days in women's tennis: taking on No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the second round.

Swiatek is eyeing a third consecutive trophy at Roland Garros.

Osaka isn't quite there on clay herself, but she does say she is much more at ease these days.

"Honestly, at this point, I feel pretty comfortable on clay, to the point where I don’t know if I’ll be a little confused my first day back on hard," she joked.

“Clay is fun. You get to slide around. You get to see how strong you are, in and out of corners,” she said. “For me, there is a lot of really valuable lessons that I’m learning from clay-court tennis.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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