NEW YORK, NY, USA - Defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka was in high spirits in her first appearance at Flushing Meadows, chatting with press on a rowdy Louis Armstrong Stadium during Media Day.
Back at World No.1 and decked out in her brand new Nike x Sacai collection gear, Osaka opened up on her mindset coming into the last Grand Slam of the year - where she’s set to undertake the biggest title defense of her career.
For one thing, she’s already faced down the challenge of being a defending champion. Although her 2019 Indian Wells campaign didn’t quite turn out as planned - Osaka fell in the third round to an on-fire Belinda Bencic, 6-3, 6-1 - the experience has taught her how to manage her nerves and expectations ahead of the US Open.
“I think going to Indian Wells and kind of learning how defending champion pressure feels, I think it definitely helped me out going into this tournament,” Osaka explained to reporters. “Because 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. So I'm not too worried about that.”
One thing she was worried about last week was her left knee, which abruptly ended her Cincinnati campaign mid-match, forcing her to retire down 4-6, 6-1, 0-2 against Sofia Kenin. Earlier in the week, she hit the US Open practice courts sporting a knee brace, according to ESPN.
“I mean, it's getting better,” she said of the injury. “Like, I have been playing more, like, longer every day. It's feeling better. Luckily I'm a fast healer, so I think it's looking good.”
The World No.1 spoke candidly about the differences between this year’s buildup and buzz ahead of New York and her under-the-radar experience last year.
Back then, Osaka was a dark horse contender for the title: she was ranked World No.19 and had one career WTA title under her belt from Indian Wells, but was also riding a three-match losing streak after suffering early exits at Washington DC, Montreal and Cincinnati.
“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,” she admitted. “Then it just kept building on from that.
“As opposed to this year, I went to two quarterfinals back to back [in Toronto and Cincinnati], and I feel very confident about how I am right now. So, yeah, it's a bit contrasting.”
Part of it is being back on familiar territory, and on courts that Osaka has a long relationship with - one that dates back much farther back then her 2018 heroics. Born in Osaka, Japan, the player’s family moved to New York when she was a child and spent most of her childhood nearby on Long Island.
“I feel like I have a familiarity [with these courts],” Osaka said. “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.”
Osaka will look to hone in on that New York state of mind as she seeks to not just defend her maiden Grand Slam crown, but also restart the world-beating momentum that’s been missing from her game since her Australian Open victory in January.
After her Melbourne triumph catapulted her to World No.1 for the first time, Osaka admitted that she struggled to regain her rhythm, suffering an early exit at Roland Garros. After a first-round stunner at Wimbledon, she spoke on social media about trying to relearn “how to have fun” on the tennis courts again.
“I took, like, a break sort of and kind of relaxed my mind and realized that you have to have fun doing what you love,” she said. “For me, I love tennis. Sometimes I feel like I don't, but I wake up every morning and if I don't play, I feel like I kind of have done nothing during the day.
“Yeah, it's definitely changed for me. For me, I just go out now every day trying to learn something new, trying to just do the best that I can.
She added, “There are some things that I definitely, like, think to myself I'm really blessed to be in this position, and then there is bad things that come with that.
“I mean, I would never say anything negative about what's going on in my life right now, because for me, that's my life. That's what I kind of have to deal with every day.”
No.1 seed Naomi Osaka kicks off her US Open title defense against Anna Blinkova. She anchors a loaded top half of the draw along with No.4 seed Simona Halep and No.6 seed Petra Kvitova, with a potential third-round clash against wildcard Coco Gauff looming in the draw.