It wasn’t a mea culpa, but Naomi Osaka admitted Friday she wishes she had handled the whole French Open fiasco differently. And the young tennis star sounded as if she’s fine with meeting with the media for the rest of her career.
The controversy began in June, when Osaka announced she wouldn’t do the mandatory post-match press conferences at Roland Garros. The four Grand Slams teamed up to issue a strongly worded statement. Osaka was fined, with threat of banishment.
Osaka withdrew from the French Open first, saying she had been dealing with mental-health issues, including depression. She went on to pull out of Wimbledon and has zero momentum entering Monday’s start of the U.S. Open, despite being the defending champion and third seed.
“Honestly, I feel like there’s a lot of things that I did wrong in that moment, but I’m also the type of person that’s very in the moment,’’ Osaka said at the U.S. Open’s media day on Friday. “Like whatever I feel, I’ll say it or do it. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a lot of things that I learned to do better. Of course, I don’t feel the same situation will happen again. I would say maybe think it through a bit more in the way that, like, I didn’t know how big of a deal it would become.’’
Osaka took a lot of criticism for those who felt she acted pampered and was trying to skirt her job requirements as a professional tennis player. It didn’t help that Osaka posed for the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and for another women’s health magazine (though those photos were taken months before the French Open).
As the 23-year-old goes for her third U.S. Open title in four years, the former Queens resident said she’s trying to get used to the penetrating looks when she’s in public. Last year, she won the Open with no fans allowed. Now, she should be the crowd favorite at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I will definitely feel a bit different,’’ Osaka said. “I don’t really know how to describe it, but I kind of had to get over the feeling of people’s gazes feeling a bit different to me. At the same time I started to tell myself that it is what it is. I did what I did, so I can’t really change people’s perception on me. It might make me feel a little bit nervous. But first rounds always make me feel a little nervous. Maybe I can just attribute it to that. I guess I’ll find out when I’m in that situation.’’
Osaka lost in the third round at the big Cincinnati tuneup last week to wild card Jil Teichmann. Osaka still feels good about her form.
“Honestly, I know I haven’t played that many matches,’’ Osaka said. “I know that I haven’t even gotten to a quarterfinal. Actually I feel pretty happy with how I’m playing. I thought I played two really tough matches in Cincinnati. The girl I lost to, she played really well. I didn’t play her before, so I had no information on her. It’s like you do have to have a match rhythm and I played literally no tournaments before that match.
“I feel pretty confident with where I am right now. I’m not declaring that I’ll do amazing here. I’m the one-match-at-a-time like person. Hopefully it will work out in the end.’’
She became a cultural icon last September in winning the Open while donning seven different masks for each match, spelling out the name of a police-brutality victim. Thursday, for the first time, Osaka visited the tennis park she grew up playing on in Jamaica, Queens, during a unveiling of five courts she paid to refurbish there. Osaka lived in that neighborhood from ages 3 to 8 before moving to South Florida.
“I’m the type of player that plays better if I have a reason or if I have a goal or driven about something,’’ Osaka said. “Definitely in New York last year the biggest goal was just to push that message across. I feel like I did well there. Right now, I don’t really have that big of a message to push across. It’s going to be really interesting to see what drives me.’’
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