Naomi Osaka vs. Iga Swiatek: A rivalry finally in the making?

PARIS — Iga Swiatek was just hours removed from becoming a Grand Slam champion when she was first asked about Naomi Osaka.

It was three questions into her news conference after defeating Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1 for the pandemic-delayed 2020 French Open title, and a reporter wanted to know if her friend Osaka, then the world No. 3 and reigning US Open champion, had given her any advice about adjusting to the fame she was about to experience.

Swiatek didn’t answer directly — instead saying the extra attention was “going to be OK for me” — but the inquiry was one of the first indications that many saw Swiatek and Osaka as perhaps two of women’s tennis brightest young stars and potential rivals for years to come.

Months later, Osaka went on to win her fourth major title at the 2021 Australian Open and Swiatek, who reached the fourth round at the event, won the title in Adelaide later that month. Both Osaka, then 23, and Swiatek, then 19, appeared to be on the rise and title contenders wherever they played.

But that’s where their paths diverged.

Since then, Swiatek has become the world No. 1 — a status she has held for all but eight weeks since April 2022 — and won three more major titles, including the previous two at the French Open, and 10 at the 1000-level. She’s been undoubtedly the most successful woman on tour over the past two years and has been all but unstoppable this year on clay.

Osaka, ranked No. 134, hasn’t won a title since. She struggled through the remainder of the 2021 season and throughout the next year, then spent the 2023 season on maternity leave. Osaka hadn’t won a match at a major since the 2022 Australian Open before her opening-round victory over Lucia Bronzetti on Sunday at the French Open.

But now, with their careers at markedly different points, the two are set to battle for just the third time Wednesday in the second round. Even Swiatek couldn’t help but be excited about the matchup.

“I haven’t actually played against Naomi obviously on clay, so we’ll see how that’s gonna go,” Swiatek said Monday after her 6-1, 6-2 victory over Leolia Jeanjean. “We need to prepare tactically, for sure. But all these matches that we played on hard court were always really intense and tough. So I’m just glad that she came back and she’s, you know, playing more tournaments even than before the break. And, yeah, happy that she’s playing well, as well.”

Since returning to the tour in January after giving birth to her daughter, Shai, Osaka has said she felt reenergized, and she showed progress throughout. She reached the quarterfinals in Qatar in February and defeated two opponents seeded in the top 20 — Daria Kasatkina and Marta Kostyuk — en route to reaching the round of 16 at the Italian Open earlier this month. She was dominant in the first set on Sunday against Bronzetti before she said she became unfocused and felt the weight of the moment. Osaka knows the underdog — a position she said she thrives in — but is also looking forward to the opportunity.

“I’m honestly really excited,” Osaka said after the 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win Sunday. I watched her a lot when I was pregnant. And honestly, I think it’s an honor to play her in the French Open, because she’s won more than once here, for sure. It’s a very big honor and challenge for me.”

Osaka won the first meeting between the pair at the 2019 Canadian Open in Toronto 7-6 (4), 6-4. She was already a two-time major champion and considered among the best on the hard court. Swiatek was ranked No. 65 in the world, had never won a WTA title and was a virtual unknown to casual tennis fans.

Five months later, the two went out to dinner in Melbourne during the Australian Open. Swiatek confided in Osaka that she was unhappy with her progress on court and considering leaving the tour and going to college. Osaka advised her to stick it out. (“You’re welcome, Iga,” Osaka later joked.)

The next and last time Swiatek and Osaka played was in the final at the 2022 Miami Open. It was Swiatek’s third 1000-level final of the season, and her last event before taking over the No. 1 ranking for the first time.

For Osaka, it was seen as a resurgence, after a tough stretch on and off the court — which saw her withdraw from the 2021 French Open following a media firestorm and announce she was considering taking a break from the sport after an early exit at the US Open later that year. Swiatek won the match 6-4, 6-0.

Swiatek won five more titles in 2022, including the French Open and the US Open. It was Osaka’s last final to date. She won just three more matches the rest of the year (in seven tournaments). and some wondered if she would return to competition after she announced her pregnancy in January 2023.

But she did return — and, she has since said, the joy she once felt on the tennis court returned, too. During the clay season, Osaka spent time training at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Mallorca and played in three lead-in tournaments ahead of Roland Garros.

“I think 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, [and] I feel like I have dedicated a lot of time to learning about clay,” Osaka said before the French Open got underway. “I just want to do well, and I want to keep beating really good players.”

On Wednesday, Osaka will get her wish and play the best current player on the surface. Swiatek said she has been “really impressed” by Osaka’s comeback thus far but was going to prepare for it like it was any other match.

Of course, no matter how either prepares or downplays the significance, there will undoubtedly be a lot of hype. While Osaka still is nowhere near her peak form — yet, anyway — her recent results could certainly make some wonder if tennis is finally nearing the time the rivalry between the two stars will come to fruition.

On Sunday, and despite Swiatek not playing her first-round match until Monday, it was Osaka who was asked multiple questions about Swiatek. Never one to look far in the draw, she had been unaware it could be Swiatek in the round of 64 until after her victory. When asked if she thought of the match as a chance to gauge her current shape, Osaka couldn’t help but show some of the confidence that has made her a four-time major champion.

“In a weird way, I definitely do feel like it’s a test to see where I’m at,” Osaka said. “But I wouldn’t say I have low expectations of myself. I’m a person that kind of thinks that I can win every match that I play. That’s kind of gotten me this far.”

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