Indian Wells: One year after she burst onto the scene with an Indian Wells WTA triumph that launched a meteoric rise to world number one, Naomi Osaka is looking forward, not back.
The Japanese star, who in January added an Australian Open title to the US Open crown she seized in September, says she’s a long way from the carefree, unseeded player who arrived at the California desert last year ranked 44th in the world.
But she’s learning to cope with the pressure of heightened expectations, and that includes thinking of her first ever title defense as a clean slate. “It’s not about defending, it’s about getting another one,” she said. “I don’t really believe in defending, I believe in getting another one. I was just here to have fun, maybe get to the quarters,” she admitted of her mindset in 2018.
“It sounds bad saying it but it’s true because I never really went far in a tournament like this. I kept playing really great players in every round and I was just like, I’m here for a good time, you know. But then I kept winning, I was like, ‘Whoa, maybe I can actually win this tournament, and I did.”
It hasn’t been a smooth progression ever since, back-to-back Grand Slam titles notwithstanding. She went through a phase of putting ‘ridiculous pressure’ on herself at every tournament. Finally, she says, she ‘just decided to have fun again,’ and set herself some mature goals. “I just want to do the things that I practice and know that I can do well and even if things aren’t going my way try to find a way to win matches,” she said.
‘I think I did that in the Australian Open. Hopefully I can refine that skill.’ Helping her work on that will be new coach Jermaine Jenkins, former hitting partner of Venus Williams and US Tennis Association national women’s coach.
Jenkins joined Osaka’s team last week after Osaka shocking split with coach Sascha Bajin 17 days after her Australian Open triumph.
“He seemed like a really good choice (as coach) because I do like to hit with a guy, she said.
Between coaches Osaka played her first match as world number one and lost in Dubai to 67th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic. Osaka will get a chance to avenge that defeat when she faces Mladenovic in her second-round Indian Wells opener on Saturday.