Last September, having just won the U.S. Open title, Naomi Osaka was wiping away tears on Ashe Stadium court, trying to make sense of the chaos surrounding what should have been one of the happiest days of her life.
Osaka, 21, became a household name last year when she defeated Serena Williams, her hero and role model, in a controversial U.S. Open final that ended in a torrent of boos after Williams received three code-of-conduct violations from the chair umpire.
By contrast, the defending champion was both relaxed and composed in her return to Queens for U.S. Open media day on Friday. In fact, the only time a smile left Osaka’s face is when a reporter asked about that match and about her relationship with Williams.
“Can I pass? I don’t really pass, but I feel I have answered that question so many times,” Osaka said in answer to the final question of the press conference.
Osaka may not have wanted to speak about those issues in front of a crowd of U.S. Open fans who were watching the press conference inside Louis Armstrong Stadium, but it’s clear that her life forever changed that Saturday night.
Osaka entered last year’s tournament as the No. 19 seed, with no Grand Slam wins and a handful of endorsements.
A year later, after picking up another Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, Osaka is the No. 1 seed and No. 2 paid female athlete in the world, behind only Williams. According to Forbes, her off-court earnings jumped from $1.5 million to an estimated $16 million in 12 months ending June 1, after signing deals with Mastercard, All Nippon Airways, Nissan and Procter & Gamble.
Osaka, however, has weathered some tough times since the Australian, including early exits at the French Open and Wimbledon, followed by a knee injury that caused her to retire in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati earlier this month.
She also parted ways with coach Sascha Bajin in February, saying at the time that she would not put “success over happiness”.
Osaka, who was born in Japan but raised in the United States, said Friday that she is a “fast healer” and is looking forward to her the first title defense in a Grand Slam event.
“I just feel more loose and comfortable here,” Osaka said. “I’m not sure if it’s because the last couple of months have been kind of turbulent, but definitely I feel really comfortable and I know that, despite everything, I play well here every year. So I’m not too worried about that.”
Osaka and Williams, who is the No. 8 seed and is attempting to win her 24th Grand Slam, are on opposite sides of the draw so they could only meet again in the final.
Reverberations are still being felt from their last meeting as the USTA announced some procedural changes on Friday, including code violations will be posted on the scoreboard as they occur. It was earlier announced that Carlos Ramos, the umpire in last year’s final who issued the code violations to Serena Williams, will not officiate any of the Williams sisters matches.