A tearful Naomi Osaka admitted that the attention that has come with her meteoric rise and the media frenzy that has followed her surprise decision to part ways with her coach Sascha Bajin have been difficult to deal with, and have contributed to her opening round defeat to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai on Tuesday.
Playing her first match since she won the Australian Open last month, and her first since becoming No. 1, Osaka gave an error-strewn performance to lose 6-3, 6-3 to world No. 67 Kristina Mladenovic, who hadn’t won a singles match this year prior to Dubai.
Making her first appearance since splitting with Bajin, Osaka dropped serve seven times and could only win 35 per cent of her service points against Mladenovic.
News about Osaka’s decision to end her working relationship with Bajin after winning two Grand Slams with him and rising to No. 1 in the world has taken over TV screens, newspaper pages and social media in an explosive way.
“It’s true that I think the tennis planet, it was surprise about this split. I don’t remember seeing this in the past,” said Mladenovic about her opponent’s situation.
Asked if she’s been able to block all the reaction about her coaching news, Osaka said: “I mean, I couldn’t. That’s the result. This match is the result of that.
“I’m pretty sure, like, you guys – no offense to you guys – but I’m pretty sure as time goes on you guys will stop talking about it. For now, it’s like the biggest tennis news, I guess.
“See, it’s a little bit hard because I feel like people are staring at me, and not like in a good way, so…”
Osaka concedes that her serve was a “disaster” against Mladenovic and revealed that her practices have not gone as well as she had hoped.
“I haven’t been practicing well recently. I just thought, like, it would go away during the matches. I was kind of counting on that. That didn’t happen, so…
“My rhythm was kind of off. But there’s been times where it’s been worse than now, and I managed to play well in matches. Yeah, when I say I haven’t been practicing well, just like rhythm. I don’t know, I feel like I’m not doing enough or something.”
In Dubai, Osaka was accompanied by Japanese Tennis Federation coach Masashi Yoshikawa, who has known her from a young age, and was seen feeding her balls during practices ahead of her opener. The 21-year-old confessed that running the practices has been a challenge since she stopped working with Bajin.
“It’s been rough because like Yoshikawa-san, I’m really grateful he came here. This is like the first tournament where he was like the coach-coach sort of,” she says.
“Before I used to just practice with him. I think everyone was so unsure what to do during practices, and he would ask me what I want to do. I never really say what I want. I just do what people tell me to do. It was a little bit hard.”
Osaka teared up when she was asked if the media reaction to her coaching news took her by surprise. She was ranked 48 in the world this time last year and she is now Asia’s first No. 1.
“I don’t think I necessarily understand what position I’m in, in a way, because last year I wasn’t even anywhere close to this ranking. People didn’t pay attention to me. That’s something that I’m comfortable with,” said Osaka, who is often described as a shy introvert.
“I don’t know why I’m crying. Yeah. I don’t know why this is happening.”
She added: “I don’t really like attention. It’s been a little tough.”
Osaka would not leave the press conference room and insisted to continue talking to reporters, assuring there is no major cause for concern.
“I mean, the Australian Open was not even a month ago. This was just one match. I feel like even if I don’t win any matches for the rest of the year, I wouldn’t say I’m concerned,” she said.
“I think I’m pretty young. I still feel like I have a lot to learn. 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 next heads to Indian Wells where she will contest a tournament as the defending champion for the first time. The California desert was the site of her first big breakthrough last year and she’s hoping the fond memories can help her move past this.
“I’m not really sure because I’ve never been a defending champion. Hopefully I remember all the good times that I’ve had there. Somehow, I don’t know, start feeling better about myself. But I can’t really say until I get there,” she concluded.
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