Ris­ing ten­nis star Osaka shy, but she’s got jokes

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - San­dra Har­witt

MEL­BOURNE, Aus­tralia – Naomi Osaka is a bona fide Grand Slam tour­na­ment cham­pion, but she cer­tainly doesn’t go around flaunt­ing a su­pe­rior at­ti­tude among fel­low ten­nis play­ers.

The 21-year-old who de­feated Ser­ena Wil­liams for the US Open ti­tle in Septem­ber in­sists she hasn’t changed as a per­son and re­mains ex­tremely shy when en­coun­ter­ing her peers.

When the fourth seed was asked if she and the other play­ers still re­vere the 16thseeded Wil­liams as the player to beat at this Aus­tralian Open, she po­litely sug­gests she’s not the best per­son to an­swer that ques­tion.

“You’re go­ing to have to ask some­one else be­cause I don’t talk to peo­ple, so I wouldn’t know what they’re think­ing,” she said, with a hint of a smile. “If you want to hear the gos­sip, like, I’m not the one.”

De­spite her claims of lack­ing the out­go­ing so­cial skills to de­velop cozy re­la­tion­ships with fel­low play­ers, Osaka has learned to de­light in the many op­por­tu­ni­ties to amuse the me­dia, who now seek her fre­quent pres­ence in news con­fer­ences.

Dur­ing her Satur­day news con­fer­ence, a mis­chievous Osaka cal­cu­lated her re­marks to re­ceive laugh­ter from re­porters.

“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, fab­ri­cat­ing a story that some be­lieved. Im­plored to tell one of those jokes, she laugh­ingly ad­mit­ted, “That was a joke.”

So why can she ban­ter so com­fort­ably with a room full of mostly older jour­nal­ists yet not feel able to be chatty with col­leagues her own age?

“In press I feel com­fort­able be­cause I’m be­ing asked ques­tions,” Osaka sur­mised. “But you know when you have to do small talk, like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Af­ter that, I don’t know what to do.

“I don’t want to sound rude to you guys but, like, when I sit here, it’s like you guys aren’t real peo­ple,” she said with a smile. “If I’m talk­ing to some­one one-on-one, it just stresses me out. If I tell you (all) a joke, 50-50 chance at least three of you are go­ing to laugh. I don’t know if it’s a pity laugh, but at least it’s a laugh.”

Last year at this time, Osaka was ranked 68th in the world and lost to Si­mona Halep in the fourth round in the Aus­tralian Open. By the end of 2018 she was 64 spots higher hav­ing won her first two ca­reer ti­tles at In­dian Wells and the US Open.

Osaka is one of 11 play­ers, in­clud­ing cur­rent No. 1 Halep, who could leave Mel­bourne Park with the top rank­ing. She would have to at least reach the quar­terfinals to achieve No. 1 for the first time in her ca­reer, but other player re­sults would fac­tor into the de­ter­min­ing equa­tion.

She’s sched­uled to play Magda Linette of Poland in the first round Tues­day.

Even­tu­ally, Osaka set­tled into an­swer­ing some of the nitty-gritty ques­tions that play­ers face once they’ve etched their name onto the official ros­ter of ma­jor cham­pi­ons. The most im­por­tant query was about her ex­pec­ta­tions in the Aus­tralian Open now that she’s a Grand Slam cham­pion.

“No one want to lose in the first round of a Slam, I think,” said Osaka, who reached the Bris­bane semifinal ahead of ar­riv­ing in Mel­bourne. “That would be my im­me­di­ate goal.”

Then she re­vealed her most im­por­tant ob­jec­tive dur­ing the re­cent offsea­son that didn’t ac­tu­ally per­tain to ten­nis, say­ing, “For me, one of my big­gest goals is to be more ma­ture, like to ma­ture as a per­son. And I feel like in a way I am, but in other parts I’m very, like, (hav­ing a) 3-year-old’s men­tal­ity, you know.”

ROBERT DEUTSCH/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Naomi Osaka de­feated Ser­ena Wil­liams to win the 2018 US Open tro­phy.

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