By Sudipto Ganguly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Naomi Osaka has learned to appreciate her victories more after enduring the “toughest” year of her fledging career and the Japanese world number three says mentally she is in a better place to launch her Australian Open title defense.
Osaka started 2019 by winning her second straight Grand Slam title in Melbourne following her success at the 2018 U.S. Open but suffered early exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
The 22-year-old also lost her top ranking before disappointing in her U.S. Open title defense.
“I feel in a better head space though, compared to where I was after I lost Brisbane last year,” Osaka told reporters, referring to her semi-final defeat to Lesia Tsurenko in the Brisbane International, a warm-up event for Melbourne Park.
“But honestly, last year was the toughest year of my life, so I would hope it gets better.”
Osaka regained some confidence towards the end of the season by claiming the Pan Pacific Open and China Open titles.
Her path in Melbourne could bring a third-round meeting with seven-times Grand Slam winner Venus Williams or rising American Coco Gauff, who play each other on Monday, while 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens awaits as a possible fourth-round opponent.
“For me now, I do feel like I’m a bit more seasoned, even though I’m still relatively young, per se,” said Osaka, who takes on Czech Marie Bouzkova in her opening round at the Rod Laver Arena on Monday.
“But I think every year I get more comfortable on the tour, so hopefully that somewhat translates into my matches. Last year I feel like I was young. I was just this young kid that was going out.
“My goal was to win, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. I feel like now I appreciate more every single win because I know what it took to get it. I think maybe last year I was a little bit more fearless.”
In December, Osaka named her third coach of the year in Belgian Wim Fissette, who guided Kim Clijsters to three Grand Slam titles and who has also worked with major winners Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber.
Asked what she expected from the partnership with Fissette, Osaka said: “Just knowledge. I think he’s had a lot of experience with previous players.
“I feel like it’s been working out well, even though we’ve played one tournament together.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)