The most challenging time in Naomi Osaka’s career is about to start now.
This fortnight’s tournament at Indian Wells, where she triumphed last year, will be instructive to see how she handles the occasion of defending a title for the first time in her career and how she copes with the attention of everyone now focused on her as the world No.1 player.
I think we’ll learn a lot about how her year is going to play out, by how she performs this week. We may see how she copes with that judging by her behaviour on court; we’ve seen her emotions spill out on court before, and if she’s feeling the pressure of her position in the game, we’re going to see more of that unfold.
Osaka looked comfortable being able to sit back at No.20 or No.30 in the world and challenging the contenders, but now to be the one that’s hunted and challenged could change the way she plays.
There was definitely a spotlight on her after her US Open victory, yet with what happened in that final, in a way the attention was still deflected to Serena. So it wasn’t as huge for Naomi; the moment wasn’t completely hers. By winning the Australian Open, she’s made it all about her, and rightfully so. She deserves those accolades. But that poses new questions.
She came into the Australian Open with a much bigger spotlight and profile, and she handled that well. But then she left Australia as the No.1 player in the world, and lost her opening match in Dubai.
There’s also plenty to talk about in the coaching space, and with her team. The most intriguing part, and a question everybody has asked, is why would you change the coach? I don’t know the backstory – nobody really does – but changing the coach at this particular point would be one of the strangest things to do, because the coach is the one that really directs the traffic.
She’s going to need to surround herself with people who give her good advice and find ways for her to continue enjoying these experiences of winning Grand Slams and reaching No.1, as opposed to finding them a hindrance, or a negative experience. I felt in Australia it was almost as if there was a burden coming from winning at that moment. She’s got a whole new range of experiences that she has to learn to enjoy, to continue to play this well and to continue to achieve.
Up until now, she’s been able to play in big matches with no fear. Nothing’s held her back. And that’s been her absolute strength. I guess what this period does now is to show whether that ‘no-fear’ attitude can remain.
Now we begin to wonder: Can Osaka hold on to the No.1 ranking? Can she win more majors? Can she win more tournaments at other levels? What legacy can she build, and how long will it last? Will she enjoy building a brand, like Sharapova, but throughout Asia? These are all big things; she has the world at her feet right now.
She’s just 21, so she should be given breathing space to approach this. The battle will be to not let the outside noise affect her ability to just go out and play tennis at her best.
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