Thursday, March 7, 2019 - Naomi Osaka practices during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
So much has changed.
When she arrived in Indian Wells a year ago, Naomi Osaka was a respected yet unproven commodity on the WTA Tour; a shy, offbeat, 20-year-old curio with a powerful ground game but little to show in the way of results. She was ranked in the mid-40s, but had never won a pro title, let alone a Premier Mandatory event like the BNP Paribas Open.
She returns a year later as the defending champion and world No. 1, having reeled off major wins in New York and Melbourne.
“I was just here to have fun, maybe make it to the quarters,” reflected Osaka on her run to the I-Wells title. “It sounds bad saying it, but it’s true, because I had never really gone that far in a tournament like this. I just kept playing great players in every round and I was just, like, ‘I’m here for a good time,’ you know? But then I kept winning. I thought, ‘Whoa, maybe I can actually win this tournament.’ I did.”
“It’s been a really crazy ride for me,” she added. “[Indian Wells] feels like 10 years ago, in a way.”
But you can keep the Slam hardware. Osaka’s most prized possession since igniting her run at the California desert in 2018? A new Barbie Doll manufactured in her likeness.
“It means a lot. When I was a kid, I was playing with Barbie Dolls,” said Osaka. “It’s a little bit surreal. I know that last year, nothing like that would have come my way. This year, I have opportunities like that. Just having a chance to represent people that might not think that they could be represented, that’s a really important goal of mine.”
This is new territory for the Japanese superstar. For the first time, she’ll have to defend a title. But Osaka, who’ll open against Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, says friends, family and her new coaching team, headed by Venus Williams’ onetime hitting partner, Jermaine Jenkins, are helping her keep things in perspective.
“All the people around me are very supportive,” she said. “They’re not talking about title-defense. We just want to keep moving forward. It’s not about defending; it’s about getting another one. I don’t really believe in defending. I believe in getting another one.”