Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

Dubai Tennis: Naomi Osaka must learn to deal with pressure of being world No 1

The two-time grand slam champion was a whirlwind of emotions in her post-mathc interview after shock loss to Mladenovic at Dubai Duty Free WTA Tennis Championships

Ons Jabeur was recently asked about her friendship with Naomi Osaka. The Tunisian told reporters at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships she had always got on well with the Japanese player and her camp. "I joke with everyone," the world No 56 said. "She was so shy. She still is."

The key line in Jabeur's response is the last. Osaka may now be women's world No 1, but just because her ranking and status has changed does not mean she has as a person.

Osaka's post-match news conference after her shock 6-3, 6-3 loss to world No 67 Kristina Mladenovic made for compelling viewing, a mixture of seriousness, humour, defiance, candour and tears as a young woman - still only 21 - struggled to find the words to explain one of her worst performances since turning professional almost six years ago.

Cast your mind back 12 months ago Osaka was ranked 48th by the WTA and played all but one of her matches in Dubai, on a run to the quarter-finals, on the outside courts.

If she had changed coaches then few would have batted an eyelid. But splitting with Sascha Bajin earlier this month, just days after she had won her successive second major, at the Australian Open, became global news. Everyone, including players past and present, had an opinion on the reasons why, and weren't shy at expressing it. A young woman, quiet in nature, was suddenly asked to explain herself.

Osaka had spent most of her media day on Sunday explaining her side of the story and admitted she was upset about claims the split was motivated by money.

World No 48 Osaka would not have had to deal with the unwanted attention; world No 1 Osaka does. The extra scrutiny is part and parcel of being a top player. The better you are the more interest there is. That is something Osaka is going to have to get used to.

She has charmed the media and tennis fans over the past year with her quirky nature and talent that has seen her reach the rankings summit as well as win two grand slams, including a famous victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

Clearly she is much more comfortable on a tennis court than in front of a microphone. Tuesday's emotional new conference was the result of several factors coming to the boil. Osaka admitted she had felt off her game in training; the Bajin situation and not having a full-time coach at present are obvious distractions, too. And let's not forget Mladenovic's part, the young Frenchwoman seizing her chance, capitalising on Osaka's 35 unforced errors as well as breaking her opponent's serve seven times on her way to a famous upset.

More encouragingly for Osaka was making the right noises about how to deal with the setback. "I wouldn't say I'm concerned. I think I'm pretty young. I still feel like I have a lot to learn," she said. "For me, that's sort of my biggest thing after this match. I think I play well after I lose a sort of bad match. I'm just looking forward to the next tournament."

Osaka hasn't become bad player overnight. It is only three weeks ago that she beat Petra Kvitova in a thrilling final in Melbourne, showing tremendous spirit when she could easily have capitulated after wobbling in the second set.

The key thing for her, moving forward, is finding ways to be mentally strong enough to shut off outside issues. She couldn't do it on Tuesday.

Her first tournament as world No 1 did not go well. Dubai was arguably the first stumble of her stunning climb to the top but the experience can help her deal with the challenges ahead.

The next test for Osaka is her first event as a defending champion, the Indian Wells Masters in March. Dubai was a step into the unknown and Osaka acknowledges that the competition in the California will be as well.

"I'm not really sure because I've never been a defending champion," she said of her expectations. "Hopefully I remember all the good times that I've had there."

The past few days are a reminder that, despite being a multiple grand slam winner and world No 1, Osaka is not yet the finished article.

But if she can heed the lessons from her experiences in the UAE she may well end up being stronger for it.

Updated: February 20, 2019 01:59 PM

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