World number one Naomi Osaka is ready to join Kei Nishikori for mixed doubles at the Tokyo Olympics, but first she needs to practice doubles for the first time ever.
Defending champion Osaka advanced to the third round of the US Open on Thursday by defeating Poland’s Magda Linette 6-2, 6-4.
The 21-year-old Japanese star was asked after the match about Nishikori, a former US Open runner-up, saying he would see if she was interested in joining forces for mixed doubles at next year’s Olympics.
Osaka, the reigning Australian Open champion also, is excited by the prospect, but also more than a bit intimidated.
“The thing is anyone that knows my doubles track record knows that I’m down,” Osaka said. “I would play. I would definitely play with him. I just, I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life.”
The pride Osaka would feel in playing for her homeland is tempered by the massive responsibility such a “Dream Team” would carry.
“Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo,” Osaka said.
“That would be the biggest – like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Definitely I think that would be so historic in a way. And I would love to do it. But I need to practice my doubles.”
Osaka had a fan among the spectators who burst into tears at just seeing her.
“I’d rather people don’t cry. It kind of makes me emotional, too,” Osaka said. “It’s really crazy for me. The past year has been, like, insane. I think it’s moments like that that sort of make me realize it.
“I’m really grateful and I’m honestly really humbled by it, because I know as a kid I had my favorite players. They’re kind of still playing right now. Yeah, it’s crazy.”
Osaka’s pal Kobe
Among those lucky enough to sit in Osaka’s players’ box for the match were five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, the retired Los Angeles Lakers star guard, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest became a national symbol for champions of social justice and racial equality.
“I did want to play well,” Osaka said of her special guests. “It’s just funny to me. Last year compared to this year, there’s no way Kobe would sit in my box Kaepernick, too. It’s just crazy who you run into in life.
“For me, it wasn’t pressure. It was just like I really didn’t want them to sit in the sun too long, honestly. That was the thing that was on my mind. I was like, I don’t really want to play a third set.”
Bryant, a two-time Olympic champion, is a friend and adviser for Osaka.
“I know Kobe. This is actually the first time I’ve ever met Colin,” Osaka said. “Kobe gives me real-life advice. He’s someone I look up to as an athlete and also as a person. I’m really grateful that I even have the opportunity to talk to him and stuff.”
Asked what causes she supports with a nod to Kaepernick’s protest move, Osaka’s was simple and admirable.
“It’s going to sound corny as heck, but I just believe in being nice to people. Treat people like how you want to be treated,” she said.
“I don’t know how anyone’s day has been. I don’t know the circumstances that led to them being the way they are. So for me I would never judge a person, especially when I haven’t walked in their shoes.
“Someone told me that for me to take one second out of my day to sign someone’s ball could be the highlight of their day, and they could have had a really bad day. I took that really into perspective. Just want to spread kindness and positivity even though sometimes I don’t do that on the court. But I’m working on it.”
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