THE NAOMI OSAKA INTERVIEW

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Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

“When I hugged her at the net I felt like a little kid again.”

Just six points before the end of the 2006 Australian Open Belgian Justine Henin said she couldn’t go on due to an injury. Amelie Mauresmo was the champion. But Mauresmo really didn’t get to bask in the glory of her achievement. But that was nothing compared to what happened to the appealing 20-year old Naomi Osaka. Here is a compilation of a series of interviews that were big and small, in English and Japanese which she did just after she won?  

The trophy ceremony felt crazy. There was booing, there were tears. I talked with Chris Evert who said, “I didn’t know what to do.” What was going through your head?’ I know Serena was very gracious with you.

I just felt it was something I always dreamed about, to win a Grand Slam, and it didn’t feel real at that moment. I had so many emotions. Serena was being so nice to me and I just started crying lot and I couldn’t stop.”

You obviously think the world of Serena. Was there anything she said to you that really stuck with you?

The thing that started making me cry was her saying she was proud of me. From there I just couldn’t stop crying. Then I saw my mom and everyone in the box and it just kept getting worse.

You took some photos with her when you first came on the tour at Stanford in 2014. If someone at that point said, “Don’t worry, in four years you’ll be the US Open champ,” what would you think?

A part of me would actually believe it. I’m very, not perfectionist, but I’m tough on myself. I set goals every year and I do want to win Grand Slams. But four years ago, it would have sounded a little unreal.

You didn’t look nervous. Did you sleep last night?

I think it’s funny that you guys say I don’t get nervous, because I’m actually super nervous all the time. I guess I’m a really good actor. Maybe I should go into acting. I couldn’t really sleep that well for the past two nights. This morning I woke up really early and I was just sweating. I kept thinking ‘I’m going to throw up,’ so I couldn’t really eat lunch. But I guess if you’re saying I didn’t look nervous then my job is complete.

Is that unusual for you to feel that way on the morning of a big match, or was it because it was the Open final?

This one for sure was way more nerve-wracking than any other. But for every one of my matches, I’ve always felt nervous.

Did [your coach] Sascha say anything to you to calm you down?

No [laughter]. I didn’t tell anyone I was nervous. The only person I told was my sister [Mari] and I called her in the morning, I called her at lunchtime, and I called her about three minutes before I was going to walk out on the court. So I was calling her a lot, like 24/7.

Was she helpful?

No! It’s tough out here.

What did she say three minutes before you went out on court?

She was just talking about random stuff, because I think she was trying to get me to loosen up. It did work, because for that split-second I did forget that I was about to play the final. I guess she finally did something as an older sister.

What did she say?

Well, she’s in Paris right now. She was showing me the baguettes [laughter].

Do you think your life changed today?

For now I didn’t really realize anything yet. The more days pass, then maybe I will. For now, it’s very new, and I haven’t really set foot outside of the tennis center.

Sascha said he liked your innocence and you and I had a funny back-and-forth about it. Do you think you can retain your fresh quality and not buy into all the hype around the tennis world?

When you said “fresh quality” I went to this image of me in a Ziplock bag. For me, it’s very hard to not be the way that I am. So, when people say that people change, I don’t think that will ever happen to me. Mainly because of the people that surround me. So yes I think I will retain the fresh quality.

After he won the US Open, Australian Patrick Rafter was asked if he was going to change and he said, “No, I’ll stay the same old bag of crap.” Not to put a negative spin on it, but you think you will stay true to yourself.

Yeah, I’ve lived 20 years being this way, so I think I’m just going to keep on doing the same things.

Your dad saw Serena playing and that’s what decided you guys playing?

I think it was Serena and Venus playing doubles.

Did Sascha tell you any technical things about Serena that helped?

For me it really helps if he says that I hit harder than somebody…it helps if he reassures me like that, that it’s ok to play the way that I’m playing, because he’s hit with so many other people. For me that was one of the most important things.

Naomi, on court you mentioned how much your parents sacrificed.

Well, my dad was my coach, from when i was little until I was 16 or 17…He mainly taught me to be mentally tough…My mom was always working and she wouldn’t really see us practicing unless it was on the weekend. I rarely saw my mom unless it was dinnertime. Then she would go to work. Just the fact that she’s here right now and she’s not working anymore means a lot.

How proud are you of yourself in the last game?
I think my serve was important in the whole match. She’s such a good returner, and I really felt like I had to hit the spots today.

What were your reactions when everything was happening and you heard Serena shouting against the umpire? How difficult was it for you to keep focused?
Well, I didn’t really hear anything because I had my back turned, so I didn’t really know there was anything going on at the moment.

Does it seem somewhat surreal that you are the US Open champion?
Uhm, yeah, I mean, it doesn’t really feel that real right now. I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done. Right now it just feels, like, I don’t know. Aside from the fact there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament.

Your dad comes here but doesn’t actually come to the match? What does he do during matches?
We don’t really know (smiling). I always thought I should put like a GoPro on him during my matches.

He might take long walks, because maybe my matches stress him out or something. But, like, since Indian Wells, since a long time, he’s always, like, come, but he’s always watched my practices and stuff, but he’s never really, like, sat in the box or anything.

You acknowledged the crowd one time, but you were pretty focused after that. How important was it for you to block out all of the crowd?
It was my first Grand Slam final. I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point. I just thought, like, no matter what happens outside of the court, when I step on the court, it’s just about tennis.

Is there one word or one phrase that really summarized this experience?
Uhm, I guess a different mindset. Coming into this tournament I had a lot of things happen, and then now I’m just having fun while I play, so that’s always something I can keep trying to do.

Your coach Sascha Bajin was asked what one thing he would like to say to you. He said he wanted to thank you for letting him be a part of it. Can you talk about your relationship, what made you choose him?
I chose him because he twisted his ankle within the first five minutes of practice. I was like, Yup, this guy right here, he’s going to be great (laughter).
But, no…he’s a really nice person, and he’s really positive and upbeat…That’s really important because, uhm, I tend to be down on myself a lot. That’s one of the main reasons I chose him.

You said Serena was always an idol of yours. What happened in the final, her behavior, does it change the image you have of her?
I don’t know what happened on the court. So, I’m always going to remember the Serena I love. It doesn’t change anything. She was really nice to me at the net and on the podium. I don’t see what would change.

What is your next dream?
Well, I’m going to Tokyo next, so hopefully to win the tournament (smiling).
I’m just going to take it one step at a time. I’m not going to think too far ahead.

 

Are you prepared for what the reaction is going to be like in Tokyo?
Apparently not because people keep asking me that.

On match point, what was going on in your mind? You didn’t have a huge celebration, just a quiet walk to the net?
I was thinking, I don’t know, to have a huge reaction isn’t really me in the first place. It just still didn’t really feel that real. For me it just felt like a normal match just walking up to the net. But it’s Serena that’s on the other side. She hugged me, and it was really awesome (smiling).

Your last name is Osaka. You were born in Osaka. Your father is Haitian. How come your last name is the same name of the city? You should have the last name of your father.
Are you ready? We’re recycling a joke from 2014 [which she made to Inside Tennis]. Everyone who was born in Osaka, their last name is Osaka (laughter).

Is that true?
No (laughter). No, but my mom’s last name is Osaka.

Why did you feel like you needed to apologize for doing what you set out to do?
Your question is making me emotional (tearing up). Okay, because I know that she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows that. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. Like, when I step onto the court, I feel like a different person, right? [Then] I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net (tearing up) Anyway, when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.

That’s quite a big [$3.8 million] paycheck. I’m sure we’d all like it if you shared it, but what’s the plan? Any special presents for yourself to reward yourself for doing this?
Uhm, I’m not really the type that spends money on myself. For me, as long as my family’s happy, I’m happy. When I see my sister, because she’s going to Tokyo, too, I think for me that’s the biggest gift.

You said you tend to get down on yourself. Do you think this is going to change how you view yourself? Do you think you’re going to gain more confidence?
Uhm, I mean, for sure, I think so. I don’t think you can win a Grand Slam and not be confident in yourself. But that’s not my immediate mindset…I just really want to have fun with every match because tennis is a game. But, like, professional tennis players, sometimeswe lose sight of that, so…

Do you have any posters of Serena in your room, or did you when them you were growing up?
When I was growing up, I did a whole report on her in third grade. I colored it and everything. I said, I want to be like her (smiling).

Do you still have that?
Maybe in like a folder at home or something. I’m not sure.

Plans to celebrate tonight?
Sleep (smiling). I’m not really a social person like that. Maybe I’ll play video games. I don’t know.

Have you ever had a drink?

No. I’m 20 (smiling).

Any your prime mindset during the match?

I was playing against her, I really felt like I had to =have a lot of willpower and just know that she can come back, and know that whenever I had an opportunity, I had to go for it.

What did you eat today?

And I did eat a salmon bagel today. But, I mean, if I could eat whatever I wanted, I really want to meet like tonkatsu, katsudon, or katsu curry, and matcha ice cream.

Did you know Beyonce was watching?
I didn’t even know that she was here. I heard people yelling, and there was a scream, but I didn’t want to look up because I didn’t want to see Beyonce or start freaking out, Oh, my God, Beyonce is watching my match.

What was the toughest part of the match?
Uhm, I think when she broke me, trying to get the break back was the most important thing, when I had to concentrate the most. If she broke me and then she held, then the crowd would definitely be, like, super for her, and she would get very pumped up, which is kind of dangerous. I thought it was really important to break back.

 

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