Naomi Osaka on clay: what to expect as her comeback continues

Naomi Osaka will be back on clay courts this week
Naomi Osaka last played on clay at the 2022 French Open

Naomi Osaka’s comeback has been one of the biggest talking points of 2024.

After a bumpy start to her return from maternity leave, the Japanese star has shown some real flickers of life in her recent tournaments.

However, while all her events this season have come on her beloved hard courts, the former world No 1 now faces a spell competing on the European clay.

The dirt has never been Osaka’s happiest hunting ground but, after stop-start seasons in recent times, she has committed to a busy schedule in spring.

And that includes action at the WTA 250 event in Rouen, where she will play her first clay match of 2024.

As she prepares to return to the notoriously tricky surface, we look at what to expect from her over the coming months.

Improving form

At the start of 2024, we hadn’t seen Naomi Osaka on a tennis court since the 2022 US Open – and, for a range of well-documented reasons, we hadn’t seen much of her in the previous months before that.

So it has been impressive to see her play at such a high level on her return to the WTA, with a 7-6 record not doing justice to the level of tennis she has rediscovered since welcoming her first child.

Osaka won her opening match against Tamara Korpatsch in Brisbane, before pushing Karolina Pliskova to three sets in the second round – and then performing well in an Australian Open loss to Caroline Garcia.

She lost early to Danielle Collins in Abu Dhabi but then reached the last eight at the WTA 1000 event in Doha, beating the likes of Garcia before another tight loss to Pliskova.

Osaka then won two matches at Indian Wells and picked up the best win of her year so far against Elina Svitolina in Miami, before another tight loss to Garcia brought an end to her opening quarter of 2024.

Read More: Women who have spent most weeks at No 1 in WTA Rankings: Steffi Graf No 1, Iga Swiatek edges closer to 100 weeks

Clay court struggles

The former world No 1 has won two titles at both the Australian and US Opens during her career, with all seven of her WTA titles coming on hard courts.

Clay has been more of a challenge for the 26-year-old, who has found it difficult to hit through the ball and dictate in the way she would like, and also has not found moving on the surface easy.

While she has a 68% win rate on hard courts, she has won just 55% of clay court matches throughout her career – never reaching a final on the surface.

Osaka has made it to the third round of Roland Garros three times but has never gone further in her six campaigns in Paris, holding a 7-5 record at the second Grand Slam of the year.

The former world No 1 also does not have the best record at the WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome.

She reached the quarter-final at both events in 2019 but across her career has compiled a combined record of 7-8 in those two tournaments, winning just two matches in Rome and five in Madrid.

Tough Rouen opener

The WTA 250 event in Rouen hasn’t attracted the very top of the women’s game, with eight of the top 10 in Stuttgart this week.

However, there is plenty of strength and depth in and around Osaka at the tournament, with former Roland Garros runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova the top seed.

And Osaka will be up against someone else who has gone deep in Paris previously, in the form of Italy’s Martina Trevisan.

A quarter-finalist at Roland Garros in 2020 and then a semi-finalist in 2022, Trevisan is currently ranked 78th in the WTA Rankings and has an underwhelming 5-11 record for 2024.

But she has been a top 20 player at her peak and is incredibly comfortable on the dirt, having reached the last eight of an ITF 100 tournament just last week.

With third seed Anhelina Kalinina waiting in the second round if Osaka wins, the Japanese star hasn’t been handed the easiest draw – but it will certainly be the kind of test she needs.

Read More: Coco Gauff: 5 key stats behind US No 1’s clay court career

The big picture

Whatever happens in Rouen, Osaka will likely play in Madrid and Rome before heading to the second Grand Slam of 2024.

That will be a huge benefit to the WTA Tour – Osaka is one of their biggest and most marketable stars – but will also be of huge benefit to her.

It is easy to forget the Japanese star is still so young and could have around a decade of her career left if she wants to play for that long, so she has plenty of time to work the surface out.

It is unlikely she will set herself huge targets for this spring, but expect her to start working things out as she plays more and more on the surface.

Read More: Is women’s tennis heading to Queen’s? All you need to know about controversial grass season plans