A “near-death” paddleboarding escape on a first-time holiday isn’t the off-season experience most players have in mind after a gruelling year.
But Naomi Osaka is no ordinary player and in an off-season, which also included rehabilitating an injured shoulder and the hiring of new coach Wim Fissette, the 22-year-old is taking it all in her stride as she prepares to defend her Australian Open title.
The Japanese star returns to the Brisbane International as the No.3 seed and opens her 2020 campaign against dangerous Greek Maria Sakkari on Wednesday.
And after an eventful off-season, it is little wonder she is ready to test herself on court, regardless of how tricky the opponent across the net.
“It was really fun, my sister was there. She made me paddleboard, and then the current took us and I almost died,” Osaka grinned as she recounted her holiday in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
On vacation in the Turks and Caicos, @naomiosaka “nearly died” while paddle boarding. 🦈
— #BrisbaneTennis (@BrisbaneTennis) January 5, 2020
“I just feel like I’m experiencing so many things in my life and everything’s really fun and I’m trying to take it all into … perspective that these are things that I’ve never thought I was going to be able to do.”
Osaka holds a 2-1 head-to-head record against world No.23 Sakkari, including their only meeting last year in Birmingham.
The pair split hard court meetings in 2018, but that was before Osaka won the first of her two majors with victory over Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows.
She has since held the world No.1 ranking and despite a few mid-year wobbles and her shoulder niggle, still finished the year behind only Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova.
“Sakkari’s a good fighter and she brings a lot of energy on to the court, so for that to be my first round match here is going to be really fun regardless of the outcome,” Osaka said.
“Despite it being very difficult, this is actually a really good draw for me because it tests my endurance and also my ability of like figuring things out.”
— #BrisbaneTennis (@BrisbaneTennis) January 4, 2020
Fellow dual Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova – the woman Osaka denied to claim last year’s Australian Open title – also begins her Brisbane International campaign on Wednesday.
The Czech lefty takes on Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a player which she owns a 7-4 record against.
The two-time Wimbledon champion beat the former world No.13 in the semi-finals en route to the 2011 Brisbane title.
But Pavlyuchenkova avenged that defeat in a round of 16 clash at the Queensland Tennis Centre two years later on her way to the final, where she fell to Serena Williams.
Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens also open their 2020 seasons in Brisbane on Wednesday, with both drawn to meet a qualifier.
Sharapova will face American Jennifer Brady for the second time, having beaten her at Stanford in 2017, while Stephens meets 18-year-old Russian Liudmila Samsonova for the first time.