Naomi Osaka Photo: REUTERS file

Reigning champ Osaka heads to U.S. Open striving for form, fitness and fun

By Jack Tarrant

It has been a roller-coaster 12 months for Japan's Naomi Osaka since her dramatic victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final last year.

After clinching her maiden Grand Slam in a final that will always be remembered for Serena Williams' extraordinary row with the umpire, Osaka became the first Japanese to claim the world number one ranking when she captured her second slam in January at the Australian Open.

The rising star has gone on to become the second highest-paid female athlete in the world, behind Williams, off the back of a host of lucrative sponsorship deals.

But with the tennis world at her feet, the 21-year-old struggled to kick on.

A difficult few months saw her fail to win a tournament, lose her number one ranking and crash out of Wimbledon in the first round.

She opened up about her struggles on social media earlier this month, calling the last few months the "worst of my life".

"I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven’t had fun playing tennis since Australia and I’m finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling," Osaka wrote.

Ahead of her U.S. Open defense, Osaka has also been hit with injury, a knee problem forcing her to retire in the quarterfinals of the Cincinnati Masters last week.

Osaka is adamant she will defend her title, saying she would most likely play in New York even against her doctor's wishes .

Osaka, who changed coach in February, has reclaimed the number one ranking and will be a match for anyone at the U.S. Open if in the right physical and mental shape.

A key challenge for the Japanese will be dealing with the inevitable questions about last year's final, which left Osaka in tears during the presentation ceremony.

Much of the criticism of Williams centered on how her actions had spoiled a precious moment for Osaka, who was even moved to apologize for beating the home favorite.

Williams has since apologized to Osaka but that does not mean she will take it easy on the Japanese if their paths cross in New York again.

In their first meeting since that infamous final, Williams had little trouble handing out a straight-sets win over Osaka at the Rodgers Cup semifinals in Toronto earlier this month.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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her middle name is "Fun".

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Unfortunate middle name for a Japanese....

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Just hire your old coach back on better terms and start smiling again Naomi. Good luck.

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Naomi's such a nice girl and I think she just has to learn to zone out and put it all out of her head.

When I was a kid, I was a huge Nolan Ryan fan. When his team came to town, we had seats right behind his visiting dugout and where he was warming up before the game. I tried to get his autograph as he was done throwing missiles at over 100 m.p.h., and he completely blew us kids off. We weren't angry, however, and I'll never forget the look on his face. It was the face of an extremely determined athlete completely focused on the game ahead. He went on to pitch the entire game and shut out the other team, striking out over 10 batters and giving up only 3 hits over 9 innings. Later I read a book by Nolan Ryan, and he talked about feeling bad about not signing autographs before a game, but he said he was in the zone and that doing anything else would have taken him out of this zone. It all made perfect sense. Naomi Osaka has to be like this and just block everything else out before a match.

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