‘Defending champion’ title makes Osaka nervous
A “nervous” Naomi Osaka admits entering this year’s Australian Open with the added pressure of being defending champion has been playing on her mind.
Osaka, who took time off from the WTA tour after last year’s US Open to focus on mental health, ended her four-month hiatus last week at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament. The 24-year-old is already a four-time grand slam winner, but has not yet been able to go back-to-back at the Australian or US Opens, where she has triumphed twice.
Naomi Osaka has spoken about the prospect of facing Ashleigh Barty.Credit:Hamish Blair, AP
“I think I’ve been defending champion like three times before, and I’ve clearly never been able to defend it,” she said. “But I think there’s, of course, added pressure. You always think about it more often than not.
“I am a little bit nervous about having that ‘defending champion’ title on me.”
She certainly wasn’t keen on entertaining the prospect of a mouth-watering meeting with reigning Wimbledon champion, and Australia’s world No.1, Ashleigh Barty in the fourth round.
“Please don’t tell me,” Osaka laughed as she stopped a journalist in her tracks while asking a question about the Japanese star’s draw. “I’m the type of person that I don’t look at the draw. I only look at the person I’m going to play [next].
“I was literally out somewhere yesterday and someone told me about Barty. Don’t tell me about anything past that. I’m just trying to get past the first round.”
But Osaka did describe Barty as “the ideal No.1”.
“She’s so consistent. I saw last year all the sacrifices she made to travel without coming back to Australia. I knew that must have been really tough,” she said. “I think she’s really amazing. She’s always so positive … I really like her a lot.”
Despite her apprehension, Osaka was also excited to be back in the city where she has enjoyed so much success, winning the 2019 and 2021 titles. “Just to play on Rod Laver again [is] something that makes me really happy,” she said. “I would say that playing in the Australian Open means a lot to me. Of course, it’s not the first slam that I won, but I feel like starting the year off here really kind of builds momentum throughout the year.
“I also think there’s like a different feeling I get when I come to Australia. Everyone is really warm and welcoming. I just remember all the tough battles that I’ve had here. It’s definitely a very positive feeling.”
It’s been a very different lead-up for British teenage sensation Emma Raducanu, who heads to her first Australian Open as the reigning US Open champion.
“Twelve months ago I was just in my room studying for my exams,” the 19-year-old said.“To be here in Australia, I was watching from afar last year, I just feel very grateful to have this opportunity to play here.
“It’s going to be a very cool experience to play here in the main draw for the first time.
“I played a few years ago in the juniors. Coming back here playing in the main draw so soon, I feel quite proud of this achievement.
“It is a bit of a different feel because back then we weren’t allowed in the main area. It’s quite fun to see and look around.”
Teen sensation Emma Raducanu will play in the main draw for the first time. Credit:Getty Images
Raducanu has had an interrupted preparation for the year’s first grand slam, though, after testing positive for COVID-19 and being forced to spend a chunk of time in isolation. Remaining fit and healthy has proven to be a juggling act for her.
“It’s a challenge to try and find the balance of wanting to get out there and practice so much straight after coming out of isolation,” she said. “But if you over do it with the hours after not doing anything for 20 days, you always start picking up small niggles. I’m just trying to find that balance.”
Raducanu faces another former US Open champion, Sloane Stephens in a blockbuster first-round match-up.
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