She may be more of a fan of Gordon Ramsay than British grass, but Naomi Osaka has her sights set on a Wimbledon breakthrough this summer.
It has been quite a 12 months for the 21-year-old from Japan since she turned up at the All England Club last summer ranked 18 and lost in the third round to eventual champion Angelique Kerber.
Two months later, Osaka stunned Serena Williams to lift her first grand slam crown at the US Open and, by making it back-to-back titles in Australia in January, she became the first Asian player to be ranked world number one in singles.
She still occupies that ranking but the path since Melbourne has been rocky, with Osaka surprisingly splitting from coach Sascha Bajin – she is now working with American Jermaine Jenkins – and feeling the pressure of the number next to her name.
She has not reached the final of any tournament since the Australian Open and saw her grand slam-winning run ended by Katerina Siniakova in the third round at Roland Garros.
“Handling expectations from myself and what I think other people (expect), that’s been really hard, but I think I’m kind of getting the grasp of that,” Osaka told Press Association Sport.
The key, she said, has been not being so hard on herself.
“I’m kind of naturally like that in the first place, so it kind of felt doubled at times,” she said.
“Of course I talk to people (about it), but I tend to try to be independent. It’s been a wild ride but we’re here in grass season and I’m just looking forward to Wimbledon.”
Although she has not yet mastered clay to the same degree as hard courts, the grass is the most alien surface to Osaka.
Her first-round victory at the Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham, her only warm-up event, was just the 11th time she has won a match on the grass at tour level, so it is not surprising that she still feels in the middle of a learning process.
This will be the third time Osaka has played at the All England Club, having won two matches on both her previous visits.
“Of course I’ve never passed the third round there. I would really love to this year, but I’m just keeping my head high and trying to learn from every match,” she said.
“I was lucky enough to play on Centre Court last year, but I was really nervous so I didn’t look around. Hopefully, I get that chance to play there again this year. I think grass could be a really good surface for me, I just have to learn how to get comfortable on it.”
Osaka says she has a “love-hate relationship” with the British weather – “I kind of like that it rains a lot, but also at the same time I don’t like it”.
Her favourite British TV star, meanwhile, is foul-mouthed chef Ramsay.
“I watch a lot of his shows,” she said. “He’s so no-nonsense, it’s kind of funny.”
The polite and quirky Osaka may appear to have little in common with Ramsay but, while she is an introvert, she is not shy of talking about her big ambitions.
After triumphing in Australia, Osaka admitted she was already thinking about winning all the slams and, despite a lack of previous success on clay, she made clear her only target in Paris was claiming the title.
When she lost, she felt a weight lift off her shoulders, and Osaka is now trying to approach things a little differently.
“I don’t regret saying all those things because I feel like you need to say it for it to materialise, but it was definitely a learning curve,” she said.
“I felt like my level dipped a little bit and I think that was a little bit due to the pressure that I didn’t know I would have because usually in grand slams is where I play the best. For sure I feel freer now and I’m looking forward to enjoying all my matches.”
Osaka’s greatest threat may well come from second-ranked Ashleigh Barty, who is looking to emulate her Japanese rival by making it back-to-back slam titles.
Barty’s French Open success came on her least favourite surface and she is most at home on grass, so the Australian will certainly fancy her chances.
German Kerber defends the title she won 12 months ago with victory over Serena Williams, who remains one adrift of Margaret Court’s all-time grand slam singles record and desperately short of matches.News Now - Sport News