The Quiet Confidence of Naomi Osaka

MELBOURNE, Australia — As the reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka opened her season earlier this month, she checked herself as she expressed her targets for the remainder of the 12 months.

“I think just to try as hard as I can every match,” Osaka mentioned. “Because for me, when I feel like I do that, I somehow end up winning the match.” As she heard herself, her eyes widened. “Oh, that sounds really arrogant,” she mentioned, clearly embarrassed.

Osaka had spoken right into a microphone what she has already made clear together with her racket over the previous two years: Underneath her quiet demeanor, she has an assured confidence that has helped carry her to 2 Grand Slam titles. She could also be soft-spoken in public, however she can also be steely and decided.

Osaka, 22, confirmed that mettle most unmistakably in the course of the 2018 United States Open ultimate in opposition to Serena Williams, closing out a title at the same time as Williams acquired into heated arguments with the umpire over penalties and the group booed what they felt was unfair remedy for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.

She adopted up that victory by successful the Australian Open final 12 months. Now, because the reigning champion, the No. three seed Osaka is a heavy favourite as she performs 42nd-ranked Zheng Saisai in a second-round match on Wednesday morning. If Osaka wins, she might face the 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff in the next round.

She also arrived in Melbourne with a new guide: the coach Wim Fissette, a Belgian who coached Kim Clijsters and Angelique Kerber to Grand Slam titles, and also worked with other top players, including Simona Halep.

Fissette said Osaka set herself apart by setting her goals so high. “I’ve worked with many top-10 players but there’s a big difference in ambition; you would expect it all to be the same, but it’s not,” Fissette said.

“With a player like Naomi, you go to tournaments to win them, not to play finals or semifinals,” Fissette added. “That’s the ambition, and I love that ambition. I love working under pressure.”

Fissette said he found Osaka to be more tactical than he had expected. And while others would try to avoid pressure at the top of the sport, Osaka has embraced her status as a favorite, he said. “Some players, they really need to be an underdog,” Fissette said. “Others, are like her; she doesn’t want to be in an underdog position, because she feels she’s the best out there.”

By hiring Fissette, Osaka broke up a pattern of hiring people who had previously worked with the Williams sisters. And Fissette has coached players to five wins over Serena Williams in the last 11 years, more than any individual player has earned against her on the court.

Williams, who has not always taken kindly to the young players who have made star turns by beating her at Grand Slams, responded with heart emojis to Osaka, whom she first met in 2014. “I have always had some sort of admiration for her, because I met her when she was super, super young,” Williams said of Osaka. “It was really cool to see her grow from that age to No. 1 and multi-Grand-Slam champion. I thought the picture was cute, so I felt like I should like it and comment on it — definitely not the mom, though.”

Osaka said she still felt star-struck around Williams and other tennis stars, and characterized her interactions with Williams as one-directional. “I’m going to have to give you a briefing of how I am as a person,” Osaka said during the Australian Open draw when asked about Williams. “I don’t talk to people; I just stare at them from a distance. That’s lesson No. 1. Lesson No. 2 is that if I were to talk to Serena, she talks to me and I get surprised that she talks to me, and then I don’t talk back.”

One space where Osaka has been increasingly comfortable expressing herself is in documenting her fashion choices on Instagram. “It’s really weird because people have been telling me they really like my fashion sense,” Osaka said. “Honestly, I’m very sorry, but that’s way more of a compliment than when people tell me they like my tennis.”

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