Naomi Osaka accomplishes a shocking career first in Rome

Osaka advanced to the third round of the Italian Open
Silvia Lore/GettyImages

Naomi Osaka is working her way into championship form after spending 2023 off the WTA Tour on maternity leave. Osaka is a seven-time WTA title winner but is notorious for her four Grand Slam titles on the hardcourts of the US Open and the Australian Open.

Playing on clay has always been outside Osaka's comfort zone. However, she achieved a career first at the 2024 Italian Open that surprised many. She won her first match over a Top 20 ranked player, Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk. Osaka was winless in eight previous attempts on clay against Top 20 players.

Osaka is into the third round in Rome which also marks a career achievement for her. It is the first time in five years that she won back-to-back clay matches.

Why is Naomi Osaka finding some success on clay at this point in her career?

Naomi Osaka returned from maternity leave with a different attitude and outlook. Her priority is motherhood, but she wants to maximize her enjoyment and opportunities on the tennis court because she missed the game during her year away. She has an attitude of gratitude about her second act as a tennis player.

Osaka was once hard on herself and did not embrace the peaks and valleys of her career with the joy and calmness that she does now after having a child. Her body language on the court is very different; she used to show anger and disappointment with herself for missing a shot. While she likely feels those emotions at times, she does not show it angrily. She even laughs off mistakes from time to time.

You could argue that Osaka was a perfectionist who was so hard on herself that she cheated herself of opportunities to excel and surprise herself and her critics. Her newfound patience, no doubt a quality that has emerged from motherhood, is allowing these unexpected clay court successes to come her way.

Next up for Osaka in Rome is a Round of 32 match against another Top 20 player, Russian Daria Kasatkina. Will Osaka double her career wins against Top 20 players on clay in a few days' time? Find out on Sunday when the two face each other.

Read more on Lob and Smash