Tennis: Shy Naomi Osaka's goal this year is to mature as a person

Naomi Osaka was catapulted into the global spotlight when she won the US Open last year, beating Serena Williams.
Naomi Osaka was catapulted into the global spotlight when she won the US Open last year, beating Serena Williams.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (AFP) - US Open winner Naomi Osaka admitted on Saturday (Jan 12) that she was naturally shy and said one of her key goals in the off-season had been to work on her confidence and become more mature.

The likeable 21-year-old Japanese was catapulted into the global spotlight when she won the US Open last year, beating Serena Williams, whose tantrum at the umpire in the final almost overshadowed her achievement.

The breakthrough made her a new standard bearer for tennis in her homeland, Asia and the next generation of women, and she is working hard on living up to the hype.

While focusing on her game during the off-season, she has also been concentrating on better dealing with the off-court responsibilities that come with being a Major winner.

"For me one of my biggest goals is to be more mature, like to mature as a person," she said ahead of her opening round clash at the Australian Open against Poland's Magda Linette next week.

"And I feel like in a way I am, but in other parts I'm very, like, three-year-old mentality, you know? I feel like just levelling that out is one of my biggest goals I had during the off-season." Winning in Flushing Meadows has meant Osaka now has to do far more media, and her confidence in that department is growing.

But she admits to still struggling in one-on-one situations.

"I mean, in press I feel comfortable because I'm being asked questions," she said, when it was noted that she seems more relaxed in media conferences.

"But you know when you have to do small talk, like, 'hello, how are you?', after that, I don't know what to do."

Asked what she does in those situations, she replied: "I go, 'uhm, okay', then I walk away.

"But, yeah, I mean, I feel like I'm more comfortable talking to people," she added. "I've sort of been put in the position that I have to. It's not something I can avoid any more." .

Osaka heads into the Australian Open, often dubbed the Asia-Pacific Grand Slam, seeded fourth and carrying the hopes of Japan on her shoulders.

She said the locker room generally saw Williams as the favourite to win an eighth Melbourne crown and claim a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title.

"But there's a group of players that I think everyone thinks is very difficult to play against, especially in Grand Slams," she said.

Asked to name who, she replied with a smile: "For me, 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." Osaka began her season by making the semi-finals of the Brisbane International, where she lost to Lesia Tsurenko, blaming a lack of focus for failing to get the job done.

It is a trimmed down Osaka this year, with shedding s few pounds another target during the off-season to help with her mobility around the court.

"About the losing weight question, it's because I want to be faster. It's not for looks or anything," she said.

"I feel like it helps me play better, I get to the ball faster, and I'm not as sore."