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Naomi Osaka on why she gets “really emotional when I play people around my age or younger”

Osaka will take on Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic in the semi-finals. The Swiss, who is just seven months older than Osaka, has won three of their four professional meetings

Naomi Osaka during her quarter final match on day 9 of the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium Naomi Osaka during her quarter final match on day 9 of the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium Image Credit: Zuma / Panoramic

In a tournament where 16-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova and 18-year-old Coco Gauff reached the fourth round, 24-year-old Naomi Osaka is far removed from being the new kid on the block. The Japanese icon already has four Grand Slam titles under her belt, is the world’s highest-earning female athlete and is one of the most popular faces on the women’s tour.

But despite all her experience and pedigree, Osaka says she gets emotional and puts added pressure on herself when she plays someone who is close to her age or younger.

Osaka explained the reasons for the same after she reached the semi-finals of the Miami Open on Monday with a straight-sets win over Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, saying she was always used to playing against player older than her since she started out in the juniors. That in turn led her to feel she had a point to prove when she went up against someone her age or younger.

“When I was younger I never played anyone my age. I always played, like if I was 10, I’d play the 18s or something like that. My dad always thought that it was better to play the older people. I think it worked out really good for me, because I used to play like older girls or when I was 12 I used to play like the woman’s circuit. It’s not the pro circuit but kind of like professional-ish people, that, maybe they want to practise before they play a 25K, that type of circuit.

“For me, it’s so weird, I don’t know if I should say this, but I just feel like I get really emotional when I play people around my age or younger. I don’t know if it’s like this thing that I want to be better than them, but I just automatically put a lot of pressure on myself.

“So I kind of acknowledged that after I lost to Coco that one year. I’m just like, you know what? I’m at an age (when) there is going to be a bunch of young, really good players, and I have to respect them and know that they are here for a reason. I was once in their shoes. I think like my mentality was a very big part in my losses back then. Hopefully it will be better, because I feel like I have kind of worked through it, so hopefully Thursday, it will be more about tennis.”

She’s a really good tennis player. She’s clearly ranked where she is for a reason.

Osaka will have a chance to know whether she has worked on keeping it just about tennis on Thursday when she takes on Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic in the Miami semi-finals. Bencic falls in the same age bracket as Osaka, being only seven months older.

While Osaka won their first meeting way back in 2013 at an ITF event, the Swiss has won all three of their meetings at the WTA level, which incidentally all came in 2019.

“She’s a really good tennis player. She won the gold in Tokyo, which I really wanted to win. I mean, she’s clearly ranked where she is for a reason.”

Osaka also spoke about her early impressions of Bencic, who broke through on the pro tour a few years before the Japanese did. Osaka revealed that Bencic seemed to be much more of a pro as compared to her when they first played each other, leaving the Japanese thinking that she should be more like Bencic.

“I wouldn’t say it was exciting, but it was kind of interesting, because I remember being like one of the youngest at the tournaments all the time. So it was cool to see another young player. Back then she was already really professional, like she had a lot of stuff going on that I couldn’t even comprehend. So I was, Oh, maybe I should be a bit more like her or something.

“She was warming up properly and stuff. It was back when she was like had adidas and stuff, so I think she had a sponsor. I was, Oh, that’s kind of cool. She has that already. When I was younger I was looking at her, Konjuh, and Ostapenko and Kasatkina, and I thought it was all really cool we were all the same age, so I hope in some way we kind of uplifted each other.”

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