Naomi Osaka: “I couldn’t find a groove”

The world No 2 shared her thoughts on her first defeat in 24 matches, a loss to Maria Sakkari that cost her the chance to regain the No 1 ranking from Ash Barty this week

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Naomi Osaka experienced an unusual feeling at the Miami Open on Wednesday, beaten for the first time in 24 matches, a run that stretches back to February 2020 and includes two Grand Slam titles, at the US Open and Australian Open.

The Japanese was outplayed 6-0, 6-4 by an inspired Maria Sakkari in the semi-finals, a loss that means she will have to wait a while longer before having a chance to replace Ash Barty as the world No 1.

Afterwards, Osaka was as honest as ever in her self-assessment. Here’s a selection of her quotes.

Naomi Osaka and Maria Sakkari

What can you learn from a loss like today? And what makes Maria such a great competitor?

“I’m not really sure right now. I mean, I knew that…we have played a couple of times and I knew she’s like a really big fighter, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I’m not really sure, because I felt like I haven’t been playing well this whole tournament, like I couldn’t find a groove. So mentally it’s really hard for me to…play against really high-quality players with what I feel is low-quality tennis.”

It’s been so long since you have lost a match, more than a year. I’m wondering how you’re feeling about this and how you sort of process this first loss? I’m guessing you sort of forgot a little bit what it feels like to lose since it seems like a lifetime ago before the pandemic.

“Honestly, not really. For me, I feel a bit similar to when I lost to Coco (Gauff) in Australia, but I think in this match it’s different. Like I feel I played worse here possibly but I fought more. So I think I am improving in that way, because I feel like even if you’re not playing great you should still find ways to win. I’m trying to find ways to do that. Hopefully I don’t lose like this a couple more times, but I think the more times that stuff like this happens, the more I’ll learn from it.”

“Now you move on to clay…Are you planning on preparing for this surface, where you haven’t won a title yet? What are your ambitions for clay this year?

“Yeah, definitely I’d love to win a tournament on clay. I think for me I’m going to learn a lot from Wim (Fissette, her coach). He’s very energetic and excited to move on to the new surfaces. It’s definitely going to be, I guess, a really fun and good time with everyone, because, I don’t know, I haven’t lost since Yutaka has came on the team. It’s just a good energy to have for me. I feel really bad for my team whenever I lose, but they were all very, very supportive. It’s going to be really interesting.

Everyone has been talking about the fact you haven’t lost for so long. Do you think that put a lot of pressure on you mentally? Do you think that affected your play here? Do you think now that you’ve got this out of the way you’ll be less pressured in the clay season and maybe play with a bit more freedom?

“I feel like no matter what I’ll have more freedom on the clay courts and the grass than on hard, because I feel like I’m still learning a lot on those surfaces. It’s hard to say, but I do think like the last time I was in this seat I wasn’t really thinking at all about rankings, but someone asked me that question, so then I did start to ponder about it a lot. So maybe unwillingly that put pressure on myself. But I feel like even if it did, I should be able to rise above that. You know, I’m going to be asked various questions in the future anyway, so this is definitely something that shouldn’t bother me as much as it did.”

What do you think (Sakkari) does well? It seems surprising she hasn’t progressed a little bit even more in the rankings.

“I mean, she has a really good service return. I thought I was serving second serves pretty well, but she seemed to be always right there. Very athletic. So there is a lot of things that she does well.”

There are many people who say what you have done for a good stretch now is just amazing, but what’s even more amazing is really what you have done off the court. You have said there are things that are more important in life than a tennis match. My question relates to something pretty important that’s going on in our country, the George Floyd trial. Have you been watching it to any extent? Are you aware of it? What are your thoughts? Do you feel in some way the American justice system is on trial?

“Yeah…I have been keeping track of it. I think every day there is something new that happens on the news about it. For me, like while I was here I was really trying to concentrate on my tennis. So of course I wasn’t really trying to get too emotionally involved in what was happening. But I guess I’m free now, so, yeah.”

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