Japanese-Haitian Naomi Osaka sat down with Reem Abulleil in Dubai to discuss her roots, her life on tour and how she's progressing under the guidance of her new coach Sascha Bajin.
There is an art to fully understanding and appreciating Naomi Osaka.
Her booming forehand on court is a stark contrast to her soft-spoken persona off it. She looks serious and often negative during a match but giggly and calm in interviews and press conferences.
The 20-year-old is self-deprecating and frequently makes fun of herself for being shy.
Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, she moved to New York when she was three before relocating to Florida, where she currently resides.
Exposure to a mix of cultures from a very young age must have been quite the experience for Osaka.
“Yes, it’s really funny you say that, because in New York we all lived in this one big house, my dad’s parents and everyone, so there was like a bunch of Haitian culture and also my mum, and her Japanese culture,” Osaka tells me with a chuckle, as we speak on the sidelines of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where she faces defending champion Elina Svitolina in Thursday’s quarter-finals following an impressive 6-2, 7-6 (5) win over Estonian Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday.
“I feel like I have a lot of Japanese qualities, like I try not to be intrusive and I’m also very careful in public, I don’t want to talk loud or anything but then also I feel like if something isn’t right, I want to try and say something about that.
“Growing up in a house like that was really good for me because you don’t really see everything differently, everything is the same sort of and I think that’s really cool.
“My mum she is very prideful, she has that Japanese pride and our entire family is very competitive and my dad he’s also very proud of where he’s from and I’m really glad they were able to teach me that. Because my dad for example, every time I win or lose a match he says he doesn’t care as long as he knows I tried my best. He says that our ancestors are very proud of us. I just feel like I play for my family and I just want to make them happy.”
Ranked 48 in the world, Osaka reached the fourth round of the Australian Open last month – her deepest run at the Grand Slam level to date.
She reached the third round in each of her first three majors and owns two victories over top-10 opponents – Angelique Kerber at the 2017 US Open and Venus Williams in Hong Kong last fall.
She grew up idolising Serena Williams, and says both sisters are the reason she started playing tennis.
Osaka has played Venus twice so far, last season at Wimbledon and Hong Kong, but is yet to take on Serena.
“I would swap the Hong Kong win with a Wimbledon win because I feel like Wimbledon is her best. I would have really liked to beat her where she was at her best,” says Osaka of the evergreen Venus.
“But I think despite that, the two matches that we played were really good and I’m really honoured to have played her two times in the same year.
“Growing up and really respecting both of them, they were sort of the reason why I started tennis in the first place and I’m just grateful I was able to play Venus and I really hope I can play Serena.”
If Osaka keeps progressing the way she has been, pretty soon she herself can be someone young players look up to and aspire to emulate.
“If there’s anyone that looks up to me, I’m sorry,” she quips. “I’ll try to do better so that they can have something to look up to. But the me right now is a little bit immature and I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m sort of thinking of this as a process and if you look up to me right now I hope you wait so I can mature a bit.”
End of last year, Osaka hired Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin as her coach. Bajin, who also worked with Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, gets along well with the young and quirky Osaka, and is inspiring her to become more self-assured and positive.
Dressed in a lime green t-shirt that matches her shorts, Bajin gives out encouraging cheers to his student during her second round match against Kontaveit on Wednesday.
Osaka is in control of the opening set after dropping serve early on.
“Keep it up. Every point,” Bajin says softly.
It’s a little windy, so a few errors are understandable. But the talented Japanese keeps looking up to Bajin in frustration almost each time she misses.
“You got this,” he tells her after she sends a backhand long. In between, he’s checking the real-time stats of the match on a tablet provided by SAP.
Despite squandering a lead in the second set, Osaka still wraps up the win in straights.
She inexplicably laughs every time I mention Bajin to her. It’s clear they’ve hit it off fairly quickly into their working relationship. Osaka jokes that she tries to be a good pupil, but that sometimes instructions go through one ear, and out the other.
“He’s really funny. I feel like he has a lot of positive energy which helps me a lot because I’m a little bit of a downer on myself and I feel like he’s taught me a lot of good things and hopefully I can learn more without forgetting it,” she added.
“I feel like I’m the type of person that puts a lot of self doubt into themselves and is really a perfectionist. And I feel like if I believed in myself the way other people believed in me I probably would be a lot better and that’s something I’ve been working on this year.
“I feel like there are certain players that nobody wants to play and I hope I can be one of those players too.”
Indeed Osaka comes off as someone who doesn’t have a full grasp of how good she is.
Bajin is trying to help her with that.
“Yes definitely I want to help her believe in herself a little bit more. But I think that the more matches she plays and beats some of these girls in front of her the more her self-confidence will grow and I think this will come naturally over time, it’s part of the experience,” he explains.
This may be Bajin’s first gig as a full-time head coach but he has always been more than a sparring partner in his previous roles with Serena, Azarenka and Wozniacki.
He likes to go the extra mile and extend his duties to whatever will make his players more focused on the task at hand, that is to train and compete to the best of their ability.
“My job hasn’t changed much. I try to help Naomi wherever I can. I’m going to go now in a minute and help her get her laundry that she forgot at the hotel. Whatever it takes to make the life of my players easier I’m going to do,” he says.
On tour, Osaka is slowly trying to come out of her shell. While she says she’s comfortable doing commercials and sitting through press conferences, interacting with other players remains a work in progress.
She’s sarcastic and a must-follow on social media, where she often mocks herself for being “awkward”. I ask her if being more open on Twitter has helped her become less shy around her peers.
“A little bit and also I feel like it’s a little bit not because I would say stuff online, it’s really easy to type it, and then when I talk to people in person I don’t really say as much. I feel like it hurts a little bit. But also there are other people that understand me,” she admits. “I feel like I’m less shy now though.”
In Japan, Osaka is starting to warrant more attention. She has appeared in commercials with Kei Nishikori, who is an icon as Asia’s first man to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
Osaka appeared in Nishikori’s exhibition match last year in Japan, and quickly switches to self-deprecating mode when asked if she received a big reception there.
“Well I mean it’s Kei, like come on, everyone is there for Kei. I feel like background character number one,” she says with a smile.
“But everyone was really nice. My grandparents after all my matches, especially at the Australian Open this year they’ve been really nice and supportive. My grandpa was texting my mum that I’m on the news in Japan so that’s really cool to hear.”
So what qualities does she have that people may not be aware of?
“I’m very friendly – question mark. And if I have a friend then I’m very loyal, because I don’t have that many friends. If you get to know me then I’m a little bit aggressive too,” she says before she starts petting a cat that briefly interrupts our interview.
Aggressive? On the court, yes. But off it? That sounds hard to believe!