By Richard Osborn
The daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father who now makes her home in the U.S., Naomi Osaka has sometimes felt like an outsider. However, she’s anything but an outsider on the WTA Tour, where she’s quickly developed into one of the sport’s most exciting young performers. After rising from outside the Top 200 to a career-high ranking of No. 40 in 2016, the 19-year-old baseliner was named the tour’s Newcomer of the Year. BNPParibasOpen.com caught up with Osaka — appropriately born in Osaka, Japan — at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Q: When you hear a player like Serena Williams — someone who you’ve looked up to — say that you’re a dangerous player, a player to watch, how does that make you feel?
NO: I feel really honored, because I grew up watching these players on TV. I just want to work hard so the things that they say can come true. I don’t want to be the “newbie” who’s constantly at a lower level. I want to go up to where they are.
Q: After two wins here, you’re now looking at a rematch of what was a pretty emotional outing for you last year at the US Open, when your 5-1 third-set lead slipped away against Madison Keys. Tough moment, big stage, obviously a tough day for you. There were a lot of tears. What lessons did you take away from that match?
NO: I kind of learned how to handle my nerves better and not really show my emotions on the court that much when they’re negative. Basically, to have more of a plan going into it. From the end of that summer into the US Open, I didn’t really have a coach, so I just went in not having a plan. It was just the occasion. I’d never gotten past the third round, so I was really anxious about it. I’d never really had that kind of lead against a Top 10 player.
Q: Fans who see you on the court don’t necessarily know you as a person. Tell us about your personality.
NO: If you don’t know me, I’m quiet. But if we’re friends, then I’m probably crazy, because I think I talk a lot with my friends, and I can be very random.
Q: We’re here at an event looked upon by many as the fifth Slam. What’s your Indian Wells experience?
NO: This is only my second time here, but it feels really welcoming. It’s really pretty. All the match courts are like stadium courts.
Q: And you get Hawk-Eye on every court.
NO: Yeah, but it never works in my favor! [Laughs]
Q: What music are you listening to these days?
NO: I listen to rap, hip-hop, and K-pop and J-pop. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, BTS. And Chance, too.