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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

World No 1 Naomi Osaka ready to change mentality to be a force at French Open and Wimbledon

The Australian Open winner admits past near misses have driven her on as she looks to focus on maintaining her success at the grand slams in the rest of 2019

Naomi Osaka has won two successive grand slam titles after claiming the Australian Open. EPA
Naomi Osaka has won two successive grand slam titles after claiming the Australian Open. EPA

Naomi Osaka wanted to win the Australian Open last year. There is an angled forehand missed against Simona Halep on break point in their fourth round clash that she admits still gives her nightmares.

“I feel like every tennis player has moments like that because she [Halep] went to the final after I lost to her," Osaka told a small group of reporters at Melbourne Park following her Australian Open title victory on Saturday.

"And then in French Open I played against Madison Keys and she went to the semis. I feel like every match I play I have chances, so it always haunts me.”

Osaka lifted her maiden grand slam trophy less than eight months after that haunting match against Halep.

She defeated Serena Williams in the final of the US Open to become Japan’s first-ever major champion and, at 20 years of age, the youngest woman to claim the title in New York since Maria Sharapova in 2006.

In Melbourne on Saturday, Osaka made it two major triumphs in a row, grabbing the Australian Open crown with success over Petra Kvitova in the final – a victory that also made her Japan’s first-ever world No. 1.

This time last year, Osaka was ranked outside the top-70 and had never won a title at any level.

The catalyst for her rapid rise was her title run at Indian Wells in March, where she blasted through a tough draw, taking down the likes of Sharapova and Halep en route to her maiden trophy win.

That victory gave her the belief that she was ready for the big leagues.

“If you’re talking about if I thought I would win another grand slam before US Open, I think possibly Wimbledon, I would have thought I had a chance, but then [Angelique] Kerber destroyed me,” said Osaka with a laugh. “It just felt like learning experiences every time.”

Osaka has proven over the past 12 months that she is a fast-learner and that trait was put to the test this Australian summer.

Less than four weeks ago, the Japanese-Haitian sat in front of a room full of reporters in Brisbane, ruing her quarter-final loss to Lesia Tsurenko and admitting she had “the worst attitude” on court that day.

She went from that state of mind to winning in Melbourne within the same month – a remarkable turnaround for a 21-year-old who had said during the Australian Open that her biggest goal is to become mature.

“I just thought that I don’t really like having this feeling – like after my Tsurenko match, I just had like this dark cloud over me,” confessed Osaka.

“I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it until my next match, because that’s when you guys see me play tennis. So I just thought that that feeling was very icky and I didn’t really want to have regrets like that anymore.”

Osaka is the youngest world No 1 since Caroline Wozniacki in 2010 and suddenly finds herself in a place where she is the hunted rather than the hunter.

She gives a funny stare when she is told that she is now in a leadership position, at the summit of the women’s game.

Asked what kind of message she hopes to convey in this new role as the leader of the pack, Osaka said: “Of course being No 1 is something that you dream about as a kid. And to be in this position now feels a bit weird because I feel like all my life I’ve been sort of chasing people and chasing after the rankings.

“It is a bit strange when you say it like that, for it to be a leadership position. I know if you’re No 1 it’s very difficult because people expect you to win all the time and you always have really hard matches because everyone wants to beat you. I feel like you should ask me after my first match [as No.1],” she adds with a smile.

Osaka is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow up a maiden grand slam title by winning her very next major, and she is already eyeing further glory on the big stage.

With both her major titles coming on hard courts, Osaka believes she needs a change in mentality in order to achieve similar success at the other two majors, on clay at Roland Garros, and on the grass at Wimbledon.

“I’ve always felt I can maybe be like an all-court player. The first time that I played the grand slams, I got to the third round in all of them. So it’s not like I had one disappointing grand slam,” she said.

“I think mentally I don’t like clay. I always tell myself, ‘I don’t like clay’, so I never really embrace anything about it, and I think that’s something I have to change. And the same goes for grass court, because I see people slide and slip and it’s a little bit frightening for me, so I just think I have to change my mentality.”

Considering what has been seen from her so far, changing her mentality is one of her strong suits.

It is fair to expect Osaka will soon be sliding smoothly on the red dirt in Paris, and balancing confidently on the lawns of the All England Club.

Updated: January 28, 2019 02:43 PM

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