SINGAPORE – In the past few months, Naomi Osaka has described several things as weird: her playlist before last month’s US Open final, the fact that Ellen DeGeneres knows who she is, and herself. And she intends to stay that way.
The 21-year-old Japanese considers herself shy and described herself in May as the “most awkward person in tennis”, but this lack of ease is ironically the state in which she is most comfortable.
Even as her popularity swells after winning her first Grand Slam title at the US Open, Osaka has no intention of altering her personality to cope with the growing attention.
“I can’t change who I am,” said Osaka, when she met the press on Saturday (Oct 20) ahead of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Noting that people would dislike someone no matter what if their minds have been made up, she explained: “For example, if I didn’t act as weird as I am, if I was just sort of like a robot with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions, I feel like that wouldn’t really be true to myself or anything. So I haven’t really thought about changing my personality.”
Grinning cheekily at this reporter, the quirky, funny and endearing Osaka added: “Unless you really want me to. Then maybe I’ll consider it.”
This is the first time she has qualified for the season finale.
Osaka is the youngest of the eight singles players who will compete here over the next week, and has made the fewest Grand Slam appearances (11).
While winning is on her mind, and would round off a stellar season that has seen her win the first two titles of her career (Indian Wells and the US Open), she is not putting too much pressure on herself.
“Of course I always want to do well, I think everyone here wants to do well,” said Osaka, who won the 2015 WTA Rising Stars Invitational. It was held here as part of the WTA Finals.
“But, at the same time, I don’t want to put too much burden on myself, to keep having high expectations. Everyone here is the best… I shouldn’t expect myself to win every match. This is the last year it’s going to be held in Singapore and I just want to have fun and enjoy myself.”
This realisation came just a week after she had told media at the China Open in Beijing earlier this month that she still feels she had something to prove.
She said: “Because if you say ‘prove yourself’, it means – it’s not within yourself. It’s sort of like, prove yourself to other people, right? Then I was thinking… I don’t put other people’s expectations on myself. I put my own expectations on myself.”
She is still getting used to being recognised and walking on red carpets. Of her experience at Friday’s draw ceremony, she said: “I felt like my feet were hurting. For me, I feel way more comfortable if I walk on a tennis court. I was just basically feeling very nervous and kind of shy.”
Those feelings have been replaced now.
Osaka, who opens her WTA Finals campaign against 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens on Monday, has made it clear that she does not want to stop here.
“Of course I’m very happy that I’m in this position that I am but I don’t necessarily want to have the feeling of satisfaction, because that means you think you have reached your goal,” she said.
“I just want to compete and, after this tournament is over, maybe I can think about being satisfied. But, for now, I don’t know. I just feel really competitive.”