The air is thin at the top of the world and it seems Naomi Osaka is struggling to breath following her meteoric rise to the peak of tennis.
The 21-year-old world No. 2 crashed out of Wimbledon in the first round Monday and later cut her news conference short when asked about the difficulties adjusting to life as a new global superstar.
Osaka turned to the moderator and whispered: “Can I leave? I feel like I’m about to cry.” The moderator stepped in, and that was that. Osaka left.
The Japanese star’s back-to-back victories in the US Open and Australian Open propelled her to world No. 1 and drew comparison with 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams. Osaka’s multicultural heritage – her mother is Japanese, her father is from Haiti – has also made her the face of a new, more outward-looking Japan.
But the added burden of responsibility, expectation and demands on her time appear to have weighed heavily on Osaka, who parted with her coach Sascha Baijin soon after the Australian Open.
Osaka went out in the French Open’s third round, lost her world No. 1 ranking to Ash Barty of Australia, and despite no real previous form on the grass of Wimbledon, suffered a shock her exit to world No. 39 Yulia Putintseva in London.
When asked how she will pick herself up and restore confidence, she told reporters: “I don’t know. There are answers to questions that you guys ask that I still haven’t figured out yet.”
In an exclusive pre-Wimbledon interview with CNN Sport, Osaka was asked what her dreams are in tennis. Alongside winning all four grand slams, she said: “My dream kind of changes every so often.
“For now my dream is to be the best I can be and to have fun, but at the same time try to inspire as many people as I can because I think the world revolves on role models and I kind of want kids to play tennis and want to play me in the future.”
Osaka’s role model growing up was older sister Mari – now also a professional tennis player – and she credits her sibling with her rise to the top of the game.
“If she [Mari] wasn’t there I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Osaka told CNN Sport. “Growing up there was always the two of us and I would always get inspired by her and she would constantly beat me, so that was kind of a very big motivation for me.
“It took 12 years to beat her – it was probably one of the biggest moments of my career. She beat me probably more than 1,000 times over my childhood, so it’s definitely one of the biggest things. I went home to my mom and I was bragging.”
The Osaka family moved from Japan to New York when Naomi was three, but the tennis star identifies as Japanese and says she feels “very honored” to be seen as an icon of a modern, more multicultural Japan.
“There was a speed skater (double Olympic champion) Apolo Ohno, I knew he was half Japanese, half American and he was super amazing,” she said.
“I kind of looked up to him. He was one of the first high-profile sports people that was half Japanese. I think to be in the role he is now, and people be telling me that [that she is the face of Japan’s multiculturalism] is something I’ve always dreamed about.”
Osaka comes across as quiet and shy in interviews, a far cry from the powerful, aggressive dynamic player that has surged to the top of the game.
“When I play tennis it’s something I’m 100% confident about, it’s something I grew up playing,” she said. “I kind of know what I’m doing as opposed to real life where I’m not so sure most of the time.”
She says she tried to become more “professional” in the wake of increased media attention following her double grand slam titles, but she admits it didn’t sit right with her character.
“I feel like I’m extremely different to everyone else in the way I do interviews, so I was trying to be a bit more professional but I feel like everyone knows I’m acting strangely and not normal so now I’m back to normal,” she said. “It was a bit tiring trying to monitor everything I was saying.”
Her mantra has always been to have fun, and she fell back on that to explain how she might recover from her latest setback.
“I mean, the key for me was just learning how to have fun, kind of taking pressure off myself,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “I hope I can somehow find a way to do that.”