By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Naomi Osaka heads to Melbourne looking to defend her Australian Open title following a tumultuous 2019 which saw her reach world number one, change coach twice and become the second-highest paid female athlete on the planet.
Osaka’s victory over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne last year earned her a second consecutive Grand Slam title following her success at the 2018 U.S. Open but she quickly found herself struggling to cope with the pressure of being world No. 1.
Osaka split with coach Sascha Bajin shortly after her win over Kvitova and in August said she, “hadn’t had fun playing tennis” since Melbourne.
That same month business magazine Forbes placed her second to only rival Serena Williams in the list of highest paid female athletes over the previous year.
Following disappointing performances at the remaining Grand Slams, Osaka regained some form towards the end of last season, picking up titles at the Pan Pacific Open and China Open.
In December she moved onto her third coach of the year – Belgian Wim Fissette – and comes into the first Grand Slam of 2020 ranked third in the world and with a new outlook on life.
“I just feel like I’m experiencing so many things in my life and … and I’m trying to take it all into perspective that these are things that I’ve never thought I was going to be able to do,” Osaka said before this month’s Brisbane International.
After withdrawing from last year’s WTA Finals with a shoulder injury, Osaka was able to take an extended holiday, going to the Turks and Caicos Islands with her sister Mari.
While rest and relaxation would have been her top priority in the Caribbean, the trip saw her suffer a “near-death experience” while paddleboarding with her sister.
After relinquishing her U.S. citizenship when she turned 22 last October – Japan does not permit dual citizenship for adults – Osaka confirmed she would be representing the hosts at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
With two Grand Slam titles to her name, Osaka will hope to add Olympic gold to her trophy cabinet this year and perhaps start to think about joining Serena Williams and Steffi Graf as the only female players to win all four majors and the Olympics.
Before that, however, she must use the Australian Open to prove the difficulties of last season are all behind her and show that she means business in 2020.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)