Humble Osaka taking it all in her stride

  • Dan Imhoff

Naomi Osaka carries an aura of a Grand Slam champion almost nonchalantly.

It’s not that the Japanese 21-year-old doesn’t grasp or respect the magnitude of stifling Serena Williams’ fire to triumph at Flushing Meadows last September.

It’s more a case of avoiding getting swept up in the hype, happier to play the joker and toy with all the fuss.

Success is not going to her head in a hurry.

Seeded in the top four at a Grand Slam for the first time, Osaka has dozens of media sitting in on her pre-tournament press conference hanging on her every word.

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Many are left laughing well into her next quirky dialogue, before she again deviates with a curve ball to have her audience chuckling away once more.

“For me one of my biggest goals is to be more mature, like to mature as a person,” she started, in response to her goals in the off-season. “And I feel like in a way I am, but in other parts I'm very, like, three years old mentality, you know?”

Cue the Osaka dialogue deviation.

“To be honest, I had a notebook, so every night before bed I would write jokes so I can present them to you guys,” she said.

Pressed to throw in one of her jokes on queue, she was sharp: “That was a joke, I’m sorry.”

Naomi Osaka has fond memories of Melbourne Park

As the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam title, there is no denying the hype.

Lucrative sponsorship deals have been inked, Ellen Degeneres has tried to set her up on a date with actor Michael B. Jordan on her show, and this month she appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Osaka’s quiet confidence in being interviewed has undoubtedly grown in the past six months.

“I feel like I'm more comfortable talking to people,” she admitted. “I've sort of been put in the position that I have to. It's not something I can avoid any more. But, yeah, next time I walk into the press room, I'm going to be like, ‘What's up?’”

It’s humble self-deprecation; almost poking fun at herself for how shy she used to come across.

Flushing Meadows may have been the site of her Grand Slam breakthrough, but the Australian Open holds a special place in Osaka’s heart.

And playing on her favourite surface, there is every reason to believe if she is indeed handling the hype calmly she could become the first player since Serena in 2015 to win the US and Australian Opens back to back.

Melbourne Park is where Osaka made her Grand Slam debut, winning through qualifying and taking down Elina Svitolina en route to the third round.

Last year, she ended Australia’s hopes when she saw off Ashleigh Barty to reach the fourth round.

What a 12 months it has been since. Not that she feels life has changed profoundly.

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“I mean, I feel the same,” she grinned. “I think it would be bad if I changed in, like, three months.

“I don't really feel that much different. I think one of the biggest things is that I go into the main media room now, so that's changed.”

It’s all main media rooms from here on in for Japan’s brightest star.