NEW YORK, August 26, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Last year, Naomi Osaka won the United States Open women’s singles title in a 6-2, 6-4 stunning upset of Serena Williams that ended after a heated dispute between the 23-time Grand Slam champion and the chair umpire who cited her for rules violations. It spoiled what should have been a pinnacle moment of Osaka’s young career, winning her first Grand Slam. During the trophy ceremony, Osaka cried because she thought fans were booing her. They weren’t.
A year later, as the 21-year-old Osaka walks into Arthur Ashe Stadium as the No. 1 seed to begin her pursuit of a second straight US Open title, she will be greeted by nothing but cheers. During a recent interview with CBS This Morning, she revealed “I think New York is home. Whenever I come back I feel instantly comfortable.”
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 23, 2019
The two-time Grand Slam champion born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka kicks off the Tuesday day session inside Arthur Ashe Stadium at noon against 20-year-old Russian Anna Blinkova, ranked 84th. In the year since she won the US Open, Osaka also won the Australian Open in January and climbed to No. 1 in the world rankings. However, she arrived in New York with a knee injury that forced her to retire from her quarterfinal-round match against Sofia Kenin at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati two weeks ago. It followed what’s been a difficult summer in which she bowed early at Wimbledon amid high expectations and surrendered her World No. 1 status before regaining it in time for the US Open.
Osaka’s possible route to this year’s final is anything but easy. It could include a fourth-round match with No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic, a quarterfinal showdown with No. 7 seed Kiki Bertens, and in the semifinals, she could face one of several dangerous opponents including: reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who is seeded fourth; Canadian teen sensation Bianca Andreescu, who won Indian Wells and is the 15th seed; two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, seeded sixth; or 2017 US Open champion and No. 11 seed Sloane Stephens. So, successfully defending her US Open crown is not a certainty at all.
On Friday, during US Open Media Day inside Louis Armstrong Stadium, Osaka was a popular figure drawing a large gathering of press and fans. She seemed to enjoy answering questions from the media and also took time to pose for photos with fans afterward – all part of the life and obligations of being one of the top players in women’s tennis. According to Forbes, she’s the second highest-paid female athlete in the world.
“For me, I just go out now every day trying to learn something new, trying to just do the best that I can,” she said, as quoted by the US Open website. “I feel like I have a familiarity. That’s not because I won last year. It’s because I have been kind of hitting on these courts since I was a kid. I used to train here, so that would be where that familiarity feeling comes from.”
When Osaka was asked about her knee injury, she tried to downplay its significance by saying, “It’s getting better. I have been playing more, (and) longer every day. It’s feeling better. Luckily I’m a fast healer, so I think it’s looking good.”
Asked what she’s learned over the past year, which has included defending titles, being ranked No. 1, signing a hefty clothing deal with Nike and being more in the public spotlight, Osaka said: “I just feel more loose and comfortable here. I’m not sure if it’s because the last couple of months have been kind of turbulent, but definitely I feel really comfortable and I know that, despite everything, I play well here every year. I’m not too worried about that.
“My feeling last year was I lost three matches in a row before I came here, so I just wanted to, like, get one match. Then it just kept building on from that. As opposed to this year, I went to two quarterfinals back-to-back, and I feel very confident about how I am right now.”