The legend of Naomi Osaka continues as the teenage Japanese-Haitian-American has been wowing press conferences so far at the French Open.
Not only is she an impressive young talent who has reached the third round in the only two majors she has contested so far, Osaka is a character unlike any other on tour.
After telling us she spent the day before her second round having a “roasting battle” with her sister – with whom she shares a fierce sibling rivalry – by posting embarrassing pictures of her on the internet, Osaka explained her dilemma regarding her idol, Serena Williams.
Asked if she felt more accustomed to being around the big stars now that she is in her second slam, Osaka said: “I’m used to it more now, but I haven’t really seen Serena that often. I don’t know if I’m sad or happy, because then I don’t have to be all freaked out when I see her. But then I kind of want to see her, you know?”
A real predicament, isn’t it? Osaka typically speaks to a full house because she represents Japan, and there is usually a huge group of Japanese journalists at all the majors.
Asked if she has gotten used to all the attention and addressing a big crowd, she said: “I like doing interviews. That’s sort of my thing. I don’t know if you guys are laughing just to make me happy, but thank you. Yeah, I like this kind of stuff.”
Interviews really are her thing. The rest of the tennis world will soon get to know that.
KYRGIOS FIRES BACK A WINNER
A player who doesn’t always send press conferences into fits of laughter, Nick Kyrgios, was asked a question he gets almost every other day (or some variation of it) – does he get distracted when people focus more on his behaviour than his tennis?
The Aussie found the perfect response.
“Not really. I think they’ve been concentrating on my tennis. I think I have won 23 matches this year,” said Kyrgios.
As Cagla Buyukakcay bowed out of the Roland Garros second round Wednesday in a tight three-setter to No24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she walked away from the court knowing that no matter what, she had just made history for her country, as the first-ever Turkish woman to win a grand slam main draw match.
Just a few days earlier, Buyukakcay and her compatriot, Ipek Soylu, became the first two women from Turkey to feature in a grand slam main draw after fighting their way through the qualifying rounds in Paris. Buyukakcay took it one step further when she beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the first round on Monday. Making history has become a bit of a habit for the 26-year-old this season.
Four weeks ago, she sent Turkey into frenzy when she won the Istanbul Cup title on home soil to become the first Turkish woman to ever win a WTA title. That triumph saw her make her top-100 debut, also an unprecedented feat by a Turkish woman.
Soylu took the doubles trophy in Istanbul that week and it’s remarkable that a month later, both her and Buyukakcay have experienced this success at Roland Garros.
With Uzbek-born Turk Marsel Ilhan also featuring in the men’s main draw in Paris, and the ATP announcing that a new grass tournament will be staged in Antalya starting in 2017, Turkey’s significance in tennis is becoming hard to ignore (they also have an ATP and WTA tournament in Istanbul) and the ladies are proud to be carrying the torch, for their country and Muslim women in sport.
“Of course I want to put a positive image,” says Buyukakcay. “I want to show the world that Turkey is a lovely place to come. We have a very nice culture, the people are so nice. The government is helping all the sports athletes right now. It will help the country move better, I think”
Both Buyukakcay and Soylu hail from the same city, Adana, in southern Turkey, and they train at the same club in Istanbul.
Soylu is six years younger and hopes to be a role model for girls at home, the same way Buyukakcay has been for her.
Buyukakcay is th 1st Turkish woman to play a Grand Slam main draw match. On Tuesday, Soylu will be th 2nd. Historic times for Turkish tennis— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 22, 2016
While other Muslim tennis players like India’s Sania Mirza, and Oman’s Fatma Al Nabhani faced criticism from conservatives over their short tennis outfits, with the latter opting to wear leggings under her skirt, Buyukakcay and Soylu say they never faced such issues in Turkey.
“We didn’t have any professionals. That’s why we didn’t know how to be a professional in tennis. That’s what I was struggling with as I was trying to be a tennis player,” said Buyukakcay.
Soylu added: “There are really few players at the top and we’re really supporting each other because it’s really important to have good players around you to practice and take you to a higher level.
“It’s really tough, because we don’t have that many players and Turkey wasn’t a tennis country but it has improved so much.”
A major breakthrough for Turkey was staging the year-end WTA Championships from 2011 to 2013, that brought the world’s top eight players to Istanbul. Over 10,000 people, including Buyukakcay and Soylu, showed up to watch the WTA stars and it helped them visualise what they can achieve.
“The (WTA Finals) allowed both Cagla, Ipek and anyone who is playing in the women’s tour to understand that these players are human. They have two arms, two legs – nothing they can’t have,” retired Turkish player Ipek Senoglu, who peaked at 293 in the world, told WTA Insider.
Soylu says the Championships helped the country fall in love with the sport, but that her success and Buyukakcay’s was a result of years of personal sacrifices.
“I know Cagla very well and we’re both very hard-workers, and we really believe in ourselves, and our teams,” says the 20-year-old.
Buyukakcay is taking her role as an ambassador for her sport very seriously and hopes she blazes a trail for many to follow her. She draws inspiration from Turkish footballer Arda Turan, who hit mega-star status at home when he joined FC Barcelona.
“My family supported me all the time. I wanted to be good in the sport, and I knew that it will encourage other people too. I’m really proud to be Turkish and I’m really proud to inspire Turkish women. I think it’s important to have idols in front of us.
“Honestly, when I won the Istanbul Cup, I got so many messages saying they just started to play tennis. So many women play tennis now, and kids.”
More history could be in store for Buyukakcay as she finds out in 10 days whether she has claimed a place at this summer’s Rio Olympics. If she makes it, she’ll be the first Turkish tennis player to play at the Games.
The way things have been going for her this year, chances are she’ll make it.
Two years ago, Gulbis was sat in the main interview room at Roland Garros fielding questions from a full house of journalists after beating Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych back-to-back to reach the semi-finals in Paris.
The Latvian cracked the top-10 the following Monday.
Today, he is ranked No80 in the world, has only five main draw victories to his name in 2016 and is exiled all the way to Court 17 at the French Open, where he faces Portugal’s Joao Sousa in the second round on Thursday.
Shoulder and wrist problems over the last 20 months have contributed to Gulbis’ slump and he finds himself a world apart from where he was in Paris in 2014.
He is trying to win back-to-back matches in a main draw for the first time this season and is so under the radar that only one person requested him for an interview after his straight-sets first round victory over Andreas Seppi on Tuesday, which took place on Court 18.
“It’s such a different world when you’re playing well, when everybody wants you in their tournaments, when everybody puts you on the good courts, when everybody tries to please you. And then you know you come – two years ago I played semi-finals here, and this year, players who play on Court 18 they’ve been treated like s***,” Gulbis told Sport360 after his first round win.
“I asked ‘is it a nice court for the match?’ so they said ‘no, go on the court’. The coaching staff doesn’t even have a spot to sit to watch the match.
“I feel a little bit disrespected because everybody goes out there, they put out their best, we have to play in snow, like in Munich, you have to play in cold weather, hot weather, it doesn’t matter, nobody cares, we go out there we give our best and then we get… it’s definitely not a democratic attitude at all.”
Gulbis spoke like a man not complaining for the sake of better treatment just for himself, but like someone who expected more from a sport he continues to hold on to – one that he feels should value all of its protagonists.
“People in my situation have to beg for practice courts to get a court alone for one hour anytime during the day. And then you see seeded players who are there for two hours alone with a coach. How can you compete? We have one hour with four people on court against a guy who has prepared well, everything perfect…” he explains.
“I don’t know how the system works. Are we living in a democracy where everybody is the same or how does it work? If somebody explains this to me then I will understand then maybe when I reach top-10 again then I will act accordingly. But I don’t want to do it.”
Gulbis’ comments did not just describe the situation at the French Open; he says that is the case everywhere.
He has been forced to play qualifying rounds at most tournaments this season, as he attempts to make his way back up the rankings. He knows how far he is from his top-10 days but still is amazed at how quickly people can turn their backs on you.
“I’m playing now qualies, there’s no chance someone will give me a wild card, so I see a little bit… I find that – I am not lucky, not fortunate, but I like this situation. Because when you start young, everything goes your way, you don’t really notice that everyone is kissing your a** for no reason at all, just because you’re a good tennis player and then you supposedly live all your life and you expect brown-nosing from people,” said the 27-year-old, who owns six ATP titles.
“Tennis society has the shortest memory. You play bad for a couple of months and that’s it. Maybe not if you’re top-three or top-four guys who have been playing consistently well for many years then no, but guys like me…
“I don’t want to compare it. But (Grigor) Dimitrov is struggling a little bit, he’s been top-10, he’s a really good player, how long is it going to take people to treat him differently? I’m not sure about this. If he’s going to play another year bad then he’s also in the same position like me. Sometimes it’s unfair but it gets you motivated to get back. But you realise much more the people around you.”
Many are wondering how Gulbis ended up in this downward spiral, unable to string several victories in a row, and the Latvian explained how it is all related to the shoulder injury he picked up shortly after his French Open semi-final appearance in 2014.
He says the shoulder injury became a wrist injury “it’s like one chain and it’s a little bit connected” and the problems have been on and off for almost two years.
Gulbis says not feeling 100 per cent meant that his time on the practice court has been cut down significantly, which has affected his form.
“I was practicing maybe three times less than I wish to practice. And I’m the kind of guy who needs to spend hours and hours on court to get a feeling. When I was playing well I was spending five or six hours on the court on the practice days and that made me feel good. And when I had these wrist and shoulder problems I could spend one and half hours a day, so it wasn’t enough,” said Gulbis.
“In Miami and Indian Wells this year I wanted to withdraw, but my coach Gunter (Bresnik) said I should play because he was there. Which was a wrong decision.
“Then I withdrew from Marrakech and Monte Carlo and I started slowly in Barcelona. I’m happy about the clay season, because okay, Barcelona I lost but it was the first time I played points in the match, since one month, slowly, slowly… Rome was the first tournament where it was okay. Even Geneva last week, I beat (Ricardas) Berankis and then (Marin) Cilic, who is a great player and I lost a close match.
“I need to be able to practice to get a lot of hours on the court, without that… every player is different but I need to get hours on the court, fitness doesn’t help me, I need the hours on court.”