When I spoke to Naomi Osaka in Dubai three months ago about taking part in Kei Nishikori’s exhibition end of last year in Japan and whether she felt her popularity was rising there, she laughed.
“Well I mean it’s Kei, like come on, everyone is there for Kei. I feel like background character number one,” Osaka said in typical self-deprecating, sarcastic fashion.
The world No. 21 often describes herself as shy but she’s been slowly coming out of her shell, making friends on tour and interacting with more tennis players.
Recently, she had dinner with Nishikori – who is a superstar back home – and fellow Japanese player Miyu Kato.
“I had dinner with Kei and Miyu Kato. And basically, it was them trying to talk to me. And I’m just giving like the one-word replies,” said the 21-year-old Osaka.
“But, to be fair, okay, in Madrid, the dinner starts really late. And I’m an early sleeper, so I was like sleepy halfway through the dinner. And so I was like (demonstrating falling asleep), and they were trying to talk.
“I went with my physio, and she was like poking me and was like, ‘Wake up!’
“I think Kei probably has like a really weird impression of me.”
Does she feel she is friends with Nishikori now?
“I want to feel like I’m friends with Kei. I’m not really sure if he thinks I’m his friend,” she responded. “He’s a really, really nice guy. It really surprises me how nice he is.”
The physios of Osaka and Nishikori set up the dinner but sadly she doesn’t think there’s be a repeat hang-out.
“It’s probably never going to happen again. Because that was just so embarrassing,” she concluded.
— Miyu Kato / 加藤 未唯 (@miyukato1121) May 4, 2018
Things continued to get hilarious in the press conference room when Dominic Thiem walked in on Tuesday.
The No. 6 seed, who is currently dating French WTA player Kristina Mladenovic (nicknamed Kiki), has been friends with Latvian Ernests Gulbis for years, as they both spend a significant time training at the same place in Austria.
The following conversation took place in Thiem’s pre-tournament press conference:
Question: Your relationship with Gulbis, is it still open? You still have connection with him?
Thiem: I’m in relationship now with Kiki. I finished with Gulbis and signed with Kiki.
No, it’s – yeah, he’s in Vienna practicing. So, when I’m there and he’s there, we see each other every day. Actually, before clay court season, we practiced together for two weeks. And he’s playing well in practice, playing good.
For him, as well, there was a lot of change. He’s a father now so that’s, for sure, a big change for him. But in general, we still have a good relationship. And I hope that he still can come back.
A post shared by Dominic Thiem (@domithiem) on
The former world No. 1 lost 6-0, 6-3 to the 21-year-old Osaka in what was Azarenka’s fourth tournament of the season.
Playing just her second event in more than eight months, Azarenka made an impressive run to the semi-finals in Miami in March. After her return from maternity leave on grass last year in June, the Belarusian only played two tournaments — Mallorca and Wimbledon — before she was forced to stay away from competition due to a custody dispute with the father of her child.
In Madrid last week, Azarenka confirmed she will be playing through Wimbledon but her clay preparations for Roland Garros took a hit in Rome with her heavy defeat to Osaka.
“I think that nothing was working well for me today. It was a really poor performance on my part. Even though I created some opportunities in the second set, I did not take any of them. Today was a really, really bad day,” Azarenka told Sport360 of her match against the young Japanese.
Osaka is enjoying a stellar season in which she clinched a maiden WTA title in Indian Wells in March and has posted wins over the likes of world No. 1 Simona Halep, Serena Williams and now Azarenka.
“It’s hard for me to judge her game today as I think I couldn’t find any really things that would work well for me. But she’s a powerful player, she has big shots and she used them pretty well today. But it’s hard for me to judge based on today,” said Azarenka of Osaka.
Azarenka has played just three matches on clay in the past two years but despite that, she isn’t planning on entering a tournament next week before the French Open.
“No I’m not going to do that,” she said of the suggestion.
Azarenka’s best appearance at Roland Garros came in 2013 when she made the semi-finals.
The two-time Grand Slam champion is currently ranked No. 84 in the world.
Naomi Osaka recorded her first European clay victory of the season with an emphatic 6-0, 6-3 success over ex-world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to set up a daunting second round against top seed and last year’s runner-up Simona Halep.
Osaka, who claimed the first title of his career in Indian Wells last March, needed just 73 minutes to overcome Azarenka, who had defeated the Japanese easily in their only previous meeting, at the Australian Open in 2016.
“My original goal, just playing it, was to do better than I did last time,” said Osaka on Monday.
“And I wasn’t really thinking much after I won the first game. I just really tried to keep the momentum going. And I was really glad that I was able to finish it at that score line.
“But, it didn’t really feel like it was as easy as I think people think it was. But, yeah, I’m just really glad I was able to play an opponent like her. Just to even have a chance I think is really great, and I think it was fun.”
Osaka lost in the first round in Madrid last week, to China’s Zhang Shuai, after taking nearly four weeks off. The 20-year-old had a tremendous March, defeating the likes of Serena Williams, Halep, Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova on the hard-courts of Indian Wells and Miami.
Naomi Osaka describing her dinner w Kei Nishikori & Miyu Kato:
“In Madrid, dinner starts really late & I’m an early sleeper so I was sleepy halfway through the dinner. My physio was like poking me & like ‘wake up’. Probably Kei has a weird impression of me”
Bless her heart!
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 14, 2018
The world No. 21 admits she doesn’t feel quite comfortable on clay, especially trying to slide on it, but isn’t dwelling on her early exit in Madrid.
“I feel like everything sort of happens for a reason. And I think the way this year is, I’m just trying not to take anything for granted. And I’m just trying to have fun every match and see how that goes,” said Osaka.
She added: “Sometimes I stick my foot out to slide, and I just like fall.
“And little things like that. There’s different clay courts, so one can be faster and one can be slower. So, I think just finding out how to figure out the difference between them.
“But, yeah, I don’t really know how to explain it. But I’m not really that comfortable on clay yet. And I know there’s a lot of people that grew up on red clay, so just hopefully to be on the level of comfort as them.”
Osaka and Halep have split their two meetings against one another so far this season (Halep won at the Australian Open, Osaka won in Indian Wells) but the Japanese youngster knows that her opponent is formidable on clay.
“I had the chance to play her in the French Open one time. And she played really good. And I think that I played good, too, that day. And I practiced with her in Madrid, actually,” said Osaka.
“I feel like she moves really amazing on clay. And just seeing how that’s gonna go ’cause it’s definitely not like Indian Wells, this surface. So, yeah, I just think it’ll be very interesting.”