CINCINNATI, OH, USA - "You guys want to hear a joke?" Naomi Osaka asked.
The World No.1 had just finished answering a question about her note to fans after Wimbledon, in which she expressed an aim to have more fun on the court following a first round loss at the All England Club.
"I was expecting you to say no," she admitted during her Western & Southern Open pre-tournament press conference before warning, "It’s a rhyme."
Osaka lifts her head and says, "When the score is deuce, the juice gets loose."
Scattered chuckles leave the Japanese star undeterred.
"I expected some more enthusiasm from that."
Future stand-up career aside, it's all part of a master plan for Osaka, who discussed a tendency to out-think herself in matches throughout the clay and grass court seasons, leading to frustration and social isolation.
"I want to broaden my mind, and know that it’s not all about the tennis court. Tennis players tend to think everything comes down to that one match, or only within the lines of the court. Later on, you understand that life is more than just tennis, and you have a bigger impact than you think you do. I’m just realizing stuff like that."
The year of realizing stuff began in earnest Down Under, where the 21-year-old won her second straight major title and ascended to World No.1 at the Australian Open. She soon split with coach Sascha Bajin, who had been at the helm for much of her rise up the rankings, starting with a BNP Paribas Open title run last spring.
Already less comfortable on the European surfaces, Osaka fell before the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but feels ready for things to make a switch, starting with the hardcourts back beneath her.
"When I play well, it’s basically instinct...and it's like I automatically know what to do on a hardcourt."
That return to basics has let her learn and have more fun, both in practice and in matches - engaging with opponent Iga Swiatek on social media - "She's adorable!" and calling her loss to 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams her "most fun match of the year."
"In my clay and grass matches, I would shut down and not talk to anyone after a loss. After my match against Serena, I could still talk to everyone and figure out exactly what I could do better.
"When she aces me, I feel like I should get angry, but I’ve watched her do that to people on TV, so I start laughing. I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m really getting aced by her right now.’ It’s like I haven’t fully leveled up my character and I’m playing against a boss."
With two majors and the top spot under her belt, Osaka is starting to play that role with others, with recent Rogers Cup champion Bianca Andreescu naming the World No.1 among her athletic inspirations.
"It’s an odd feeling, but then I realize how old they are, and then I think about how there’s always a new generation. I don’t know. It’s definitely very strange, but it’s something I have to get used to, because at the same time, I can’t be all soft and squishy. I gotta put the hammer down, like, ‘I might be old but I can still win a couple matches.’"
She laughs again, both at her wordplay and others' own misconception of her.
"Sometimes people tell me I look really mean when I pass them. Other times, when I’m laughing, people are surprised, like, ‘You seem really nice; I didn't expect that.’"
Where expectations wore Osaka down in the spring, the next few months feel full of possibilities for the defending US Open champion, who admittedly thought more about winning the tournament once than going back to play it again.
"I’m just expecting to see my picture on the wall. That’s about it. That’s about as far as I’ve thought. For me, everyone knows I grew up in New York, and I have family there. I feel like that’s sort of my home, a little, and I just love going back there every year."
One thing she can count on is a heavy media presence, but that, Osaka affectionately reminds the journalists, isn't anything new.
"I’ve been really lucky because I had to do a lot of Japanese press, even when I was No.100. That wasn’t normal, like having to do press when you’re ranked that low is a bit strange. But it got me used to everything. I kind of like talking to you guys; you ask me interesting questions about me, my sweater," she chuckled, referencing an earlier query about her Nike crop top. "You're all always keeping it real."
Seeded No.2 in Cincinnati, Osaka plays Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Wednesday.