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.
Elina Svitolina‘s bid for an unprecedented three-peat in Dubai looked in danger early in her opening set against Ons Jabeur on Tuesday but the Ukrainian weathered the storm and advanced to the third round when her opponent retired with a shoulder injury.
Jabeur led 4-1 in the first set and looked comfortable against the two-time defending champion before Svitolina took four games in a row to lead 5-4. Serving for the set, Svitolina was broken by Jabeur, who took a bad tumble in that game when approaching the net to hit a drop shot.
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The Tunisian world No. 56 still managed to hold and forced a tiebreak. Jabeur saved four set points, the last of which saw her fire a stunning one-handed backhand pass late in the breaker. Svitolina was unfazed though and wrapped up the opening set on her fifth opportunity.
Jabeur had taken a medical timeout at 5-5 for a right shoulder problem and was forced to retire down 0-4 in the second set.
“I felt it at the beginning of the match, just finishing the warm-up. I went to grab the racquet then I felt something blocking in the shoulder. I thought if I continue playing maybe the pain would go away. But then it was getting worse and worse and sometimes I was losing some energy. You could see that I wasn’t moving very good,” Jabeur said of her shoulder injury after the match.
“The high balls for the forehand they were bothering me a lot. I was not missing yesterday and today I was missing a lot.
“I don’t even know how I fell actually, it was so weird. I don’t think I fell on the shoulder. I don’t know if it made it worse or not. My ankle is good, so that’s important. I have a few bruises but it’s okay.”
Jabeur and Svitolina go way back and they actually faced off in the French Open junior final in 2010, which the Ukrainian won. Their most recent meeting prior to Dubai was a tough third-set tiebreak victory for Svitolina in Taipei in 2017, where Jabeur held four match points but couldn’t convert.
On Tuesday, Jabeur had the right game plan to trouble Svitolina and the North African admits it’s a bit frustrating she wasn’t able to pull off the upset.
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“I’m still a little bit angry about it because I was playing really well, I was showing good shots during the game. I was kind of playing my best tennis, I handled the first set well. But it’s frustrating to have these kind of injuries. I was playing like 30 or 20 per cent of my tennis, yet still I was very close,” said the 24-year-old Jabeur.
“I was worried [about the shoulder] just after the match but since the pain was going away slowly I thought that’s a good sign. I’ll see if I’ll do an MRI tomorrow or not. I haven’t rested for three weeks now. I was playing non-stop from Fed Cup, so maybe it’s a little bit of fatigue. Playing doubles late in Doha, sleeping late every night, and then coming straightaway to play here. Tough match yesterday, so maybe it was also that.”
Jabeur, who is the highest-ranked Arab in tennis history, is expected to rise to a career-high 52 in the world on Monday, which will leave her on the brink of the top-50. The 2011 Roland Garros junior champion had a lot of Tunisians supporting her in the stands here in Dubai and says it’s always a special feeling for her playing in the Emirates.
“It’s always nice to be here in Dubai, I think I play well every time I’m here,” she added. “I’m improving my ranking now, I’m getting there. I know I can beat any top player. I was very close today I think. I’m happy with my level and I’m happy with the way I’m improving mentally. Hopefully I can be stronger next time.”
On what positives she takes from her campaign here this year, Jabeur said: “Let’s say like now I improved the ranking and that’s the positive thing from this tournament.”
— Elina Svitolina (@ElinaSvitolina) February 19, 2019
Meanwhile, Svitolina says the prospect of becoming the first woman to win three titles in a row in Dubai is spurring her on this week.
“This is a big motivation for me here. Today I didn’t really feel like in a match mood. I don’t know why. Was a bit struggling. In the end, we could say I had a very slow start. Hopefully, yeah, tomorrow will be better,” said Svitolina.
“But definitely it’s a big motivation for me. When I was 0-2 down, I told myself, ‘Come on, you are here to make history of the tournament’.”
Her third round opponent will be two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza, who trails Svitolina 3-4 head-to-head.
Ons Jabeur on Naomi Osaka:
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 19, 2019
Novak Djokovic reflected on the “life lessons” he has learned in the last 12 months after his resurgence saw him crowned the Sportsman of the Year at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco.
The Serbian was convalescing from elbow surgery a year ago and his subsequent struggles on his return to the ATP Tour a couple of months later left many fearing he was in terminal decline.
But Djokovic wiped out any doubts in the second half of last year by winning Wimbledon and the US Open en route to reclaiming top spot back in the rankings.
He has since added a record seventh Australian Open title to move to 15 grand slams, and his 2018 achievements saw him honoured in the principality for the fourth time in his career, pipping fellow nominees Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Kylian Mbappe, Luka Modric and Eliud Kipchoge to one of the evening’s top prizes.
Djokovic said: “Twelve months ago I was on the surgery table so I hope that was the last surgery that I ever have.
“But at the same time I’m really pleased with how the surgery went because it allowed me to be – five weeks after the surgery – back on the court.
“I was very anxious to be back on the court to compete, and very impatient, because I was not ready emotionally and my game was not there and not even close.
“But in my mind knowing what I’m capable of and the quality of my tennis I felt like it’s not going to take much time for me to get there. That’s where I had the reality check.
“Then for several months I was experiencing some really challenging and difficult months mentally on the court where I was questioning everything and really doubting as well.
“There were many, many life lessons that I’ve learned along the way in the last 12 months and to be able to be recognised for that was a privilege and an honour.”
Djokovic admitted there were moments when he was at his lowest where he would sometimes lash out at either himself or those around him.
Having ended a two-year wait for a grand slam win at SW19, Djokovic believes he had to attempt to find satisfaction from within.
He added: “Probably one of the biggest takes I’ve had in the last couple of years is that it really does depend only on me: whether I’m going to take these challenging situations and obstacles as an opportunity to grow, to rise, to get better or let them defeat me.
“That kind of a mindset was very helpful in the moments where I really needed that strength. I had to find it inside rather than outside.
“I didn’t know that a couple of years ago, I was looking for things outside and maybe blaming people around me or blaming myself and not really understanding that things are as they should be and you just have to learn.
“There’s a learning curve of life and you have to embrace it and accept it.”
Simone Biles scooped her second statuette after becoming the first female to win four world gymnastics titles in the all-around discipline in Doha last November.
The American overcome Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Ester Ledecka, Mikaela Shiffrin and Daniela Ryf to earn Sportswoman of the Year.
Elsewhere at the ceremony, Naomi Osaka won the Breakthrough award following her maiden grand slam victory at the US Open, Tiger Woods claimed the Comeback prize after winning his first PGA Tour title in five years, while France’s World Cup winners saw them scoop the Team accolade.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger received the Lifetime Achievement Award following his revolutionary 22 years with the Gunners.
– The Laureus World Sports Awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women from the world of sport along with their achievements from the previous calendar year. The Awards also showcase the work of Laureus Sport for Good, a charity which uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage.