Naomi Osaka has opened up on the immense pressure she placed on herself earlier this year that contributed to a slump in form and the loss of her top ranking.
The 21-year-old Japanese continued her late season resurgence Sunday with victory over current No 1 Ashleigh Barty in Beijing’s China Open final.
It meant back-to-back WTA Tour titles for Osaka, who won the Australian Open in January, but then failed to match those high standards at the next three Grand Slams.
“I think this dip that I had really humbled me, it made me very motivated to be here right now,” she said after coming back from a set down to defeat Australia’s Barty.
Osaka, toppled as number one by Barty in June and now ranked third, said that after winning in Melbourne “I honestly was counting the ranking points.
“I was too stats-oriented after I won the Australian Open because there was this big thing about you’re number one now. Then I felt like I shouldn’t lose a match after that.”
Osaka, who burst to the fore by beating Serena Williams to win the 2018 US Open, said that she is trying to “care” a little less to take the pressure off. It is a mindset that helped her triumph in her home Pan Pacific Open last month, but was not in evidence in the early stages against Barty.
Osaka said that she was so desperate to win the Beijing final that she was in tears as she lost the first set, although she managed to hide it well and recovered her poise.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same way that I felt again right after Australia,” she said of the sky-high expectations she placed on herself.
“There’s no way, no way that’s possible.”
The 21-year-old Osaka has had a turbulent year, winning the Australian Open but then suffering a dip in form which included exiting Flushing Meadows in the last 16.
But the two-time Grand Slam champion from Japan surged back to win her home Pan Pacific Open last month and made it back-to-back titles with victory in Beijing. Osaka defeated teenage US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and then French Open winner Barty on the way to the fifth crown of her young career.
Winning in Japan and China had been her aim after the US Open letdown, where she was the defending champion and top seed.
“I don’t want to say I planned [it], but I really meditated on it. It just feels like I accomplished what I set out to do,” she said.
“I didn’t play those two tournaments for myself, I kind of played them for my team because the US Open wasn’t that great and I felt very apologetic.”
Among the changes after the US Open, the young Japanese brought her father Leonard Francois on board as her coach. It has proved successful in a short time but Osaka does not see it as a long-term arrangement.
“He doesn’t like watching my matches. I think it stresses him out because he twitches every time I hit a ball,” she smiled.
The beaten Barty said that her slice shot, a major weapon of the Australian’s, was “nullified” because of the cool conditions in the Chinese capital. But the top-ranked 23-year-old said: “I’m extremely proud.
“Proud that myself, my team, we turn up for every single tournament, regardless of when it is during the year, what the conditions are like.”
The Australian, who took a break from tennis five years ago and played cricket instead, is relishing more showdowns against Osaka and Andreescu, two other major talents.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for all three of us,” she said.
With AFP Inputs