MELBOURNE — Naomi Osaka is a bona fide Grand Slam champion, but she certainly doesn’t go around flaunting a superior attitude among fellow players.
In fact, the 21-year-old who defeated Serena Williams for the US Open title last 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 16th-seeded 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.”
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Despite her claims of lacking the outgoing social skills to develop cozy relationships with fellow players, Osaka’s learned to delight in the many opportunities to amuse the media, who now seek her frequent presence in press conferences.
During her Saturday press 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 here. By the end of 2018 she was 64 spots higher having won her first 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 quarterfinals to achieve No. 1 for the first 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 first round Tuesday.
Eventually, Osaka settled into answering some of the nitty-gritty questions that every player faces once they’ve etched their name onto the official roster of major champions. The most important query was about her expectations here now that she’s a Grand Slam champion.
“No one want to lose in the first round of a Slam, I think,” said Osaka, who reached the Brisbane semifinal ahead of arriving in Melbourne. “That would be my immediate goal.”
Then she revealed her most important objective during the recent offseason 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) three years old mentality, you know.”