The future of Naomi Osaka is in question after her withdrawal from the Australian Open amid the constant slide in her world ranking and her inability to play tennis regular – joining the likes Carlos Alcaraz, men’s world number one player, who aren’t playing in the year’s first grand slam.
Other notable absentees are former world number one Simona Halep while Venus Williams also handed back a wildcard entry after suffering an injury while practising in Auckland.
It comes as the Australian Open organisers were already reeling from the retirements last year of reigning women’s champion Ashleigh Barty and legends Serena Williams and Roger Federer.
Osaka hasn’t been playing tennis since September and her withdrawal from next week’s Australian Open has raised concerns that the former world number one may never appear on court again.
She had taken a break due to mental health reasons after missing the 2021 French Open and later said she had been struggling with depression and anxiety for several years. Her absence from Melbourne adds to uncertainty over when or if she will resume her career.
The Japanese star is now ranked 47 in the world, having hit the summit for the first time in 2019. Rothenberg believes Osaka is “recalculating things” and may decide that she is not prepared to make the sacrifices needed to continue as a professional tennis player.
Osaka’s social media accounts have stayed silent since Tennis Australia tweeted on Sunday that the two-time Melbourne champion would miss the first Grand Slam of the year, giving no reason for her absence.
Her posts over the past few months have shown her travelling in Europe with her boyfriend, the rapper Cordae, and announcing that her sports management agency had signed up world number two Ons Jabeur.
But there has been little evidence of the Japanese player spending time practising on court, fuelling speculation that the four-time Grand Slam champion’s tennis career could be over at the age of 25.
She spent all of 2022 outside the top 10, enduring first-round defeats at both the French and US Opens and withdrawing from Wimbledon with an Achilles´ injury. She also split from long-time coach Wim Fissette last summer, replacing him with her father Leonard Francois.
Her last appearance was at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo in September, where the home favourite withdrew before her second-round match, complaining of abdominal pain. She told reporters at that tournament that she had gone through “more down than up” in 2022 and that she had “learned a lot” about herself.
Osaka has also invested in Pickleball, a tennis-like sport that is growing fast in the United States, and boasts numerous endorsements. Her website describes herself as not only a tennis player but also “fashion nerd”, “entrepreneur” and “social change advocate”.
She was named the world’s top-earning woman athlete for 2022 by Forbes, with reported earnings of $51.1 million, even as her tennis career continued to dive. Rothenberg says there will be significant pressure from sponsors urging Osaka to “stay on the hamster wheel” of professional tennis.
Earlier, Carlos Alcaraz – the world No 1 – was forced to pull out of the year’s first grand slam due to a muscle injury.
Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard who became the youngest men’s world number one in history after winning his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open in September last year, used social media to inform the fans about the news.
“When I was at my best in preseason, I picked up an injury through a chance, unnatural movement in training. This time it’s the semimembranosus muscle in my right leg.”
He added that he had worked so hard to get to my best level for Australia but unfortunately he won’t be able to play the Australian Open. “It’s tough, but I have to be optimistic, recover and look forward. See you in 2024, Australian Open.”
Alcaraz was one of the standout stars of 2022, where he rose through the rankings to claim the world No 1 spot – becoming the youngest man ever to take the position. The teenage sensation won five titles last year, including his first Grand Slam at the US Open, and was looking to get 2023 off to a flying start in Melbourne.
However, Alcaraz will be forced to postpone his plans until he has overcome his leg injury. His absence means that fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal will now become top seed as he looks to defend his title.