Tennis-Osaka hopes dedication to clay pays off at Roland Garros

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By Shrivathsa Sridhar

PARIS (Reuters) – Naomi Osaka said she was encouraged by her progress on clay in the run up to the French Open, as the four-time Grand Slam winner eyes an elusive trophy on tennis’ slowest surface since returning from a 15-month maternity break.

Former world number one Osaka, who returned to action in January, has had huge success on hard courts thanks to her explosive baseline game, but the 26-year-old from Japan has usually struggled on clay.

Now ranked 134th in the world after her long break, Osaka has never reached a final on the surface and has yet to advance beyond the third round at Roland Garros.

However, she shrugged off early defeats in Rouen and Madrid before a run to the Italian Open fourth round, earning her first two career top-20 wins on clay in Rome by beating Marta Kostyuk and Daria Kasatkina.

“I think I’ve made a significant amount of progress and I feel like people can see that throughout the tournaments that I’ve played, but I feel like I’ve dedicated a lot of time to learning about clay,” Osaka told reporters.

“I want to do well and I want to keep beating really good players. Hopefully the last stop here I’ll play well too.”

Osaka, who returns to the French Open after a gap of two years, takes on Italian Lucia Bronzetti first up on Sunday.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played her, not to my knowledge. So I’ve seen her around and I know that anyone that’s playing this tournament is a really tough opponent,” Osaka said.

“Plus it’s a first round of a Grand Slam. I’m usually quite nervous during those first-round matches. So I’m just going in there trying my best and seeing if all the lessons that I have learned so far have adapted me into a better player.”

She will have the welcome distraction of her daughter Shai at during the tournament.

“Being away from her was really tough, but I called her every day. I saw how well she was doing and saw how happy she was, so that made me happy too,” she added.

“Yesterday she walked for the first time, so I was really happy. We’re going to practice some more when I get back. 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 surreal.”

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Paris; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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