Naomi Osaka 'not surprised' by Grand Slam success of Aryna Sabalenka

Belarusian has won two Australian Open titles and made at least semi-finals of six majors in row

Naomi Osaka described Aryna Sabalenka as 'a player that people didn’t really want to play'. AFP
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Naomi Osaka feels Aryna Sabalenka “has a different energy around her” and is “not surprised” by the Belarusian’s Grand Slam success.

During the 15 months Osaka has spent away from the tour, Sabalenka captured two Australian Open titles and put together a streak of six consecutive majors in which she has made at least the semi-finals.

After suffering first-week exits in her first 12 slams, Sabalenka has become the most consistent player at the tour’s biggest events, which earned her an eight-week stint at the top of the rankings at the end of last year.

“I’ve always felt like she was a player that people didn’t really want to play. And that’s something that’s very powerful,” Osaka told The National of the second-ranked Sabalenka, who successfully defended her Australian Open title last week.

“I’m not really surprised by any of this. I feel like there’s players that people talk about and when you see them achieve their potential, it’s not surprising. It’s just kind of more of a time can only tell moment.”

Osaka returned to the tour from maternity leave last month and has been adopting a more outgoing approach, ditching the headphones she always used to wear to protect herself from social anxiety. Now that she’s interacting with people more at tournaments, she has been able to make more observations.

“The biggest difference that I’ve seen since coming back on tour, granted I have my headphones off now, it’s just she has a different energy around her. I see her smiling more, so that’s really nice and it’s really just cool to see,” said Osaka of Sabalenka.

Another Australian Open champion has also caught Osaka’s eye and that is Jannik Sinner, who became the first Italian to win at Melbourne Park when he knocked out three top-five players in a row – Andrey Rublev, Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev – to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

“Actually, before the Open started, I was talking to Wim [Fissette, her coach] about Sinner, so I feel like in a way we both kept tabs on him,” revealed Osaka.

“Honestly, it was really exciting to watch. Just seeing him beat Djokovic was really signalling that the young guys are really out here.

“From a marketing standpoint, it’s really cool how he’s able to separate himself and kind of, with the carrot and everything,” added Osaka, referring to Sinner’s fan club the "Carota Boys".

“The story is kind of funny to me. I think it’s just really cool how he's made himself very identifiable.”

Osaka begins her Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open campaign on Tuesday, facing qualifier Danielle Collins in singles and teaming up with Tunisian Ons Jabeur on the doubles court against Chinese duo Zheng Saisai and Wang Xinyu.

It will be Osaka’s first doubles appearance since 2017. “I’m a mixture of excited and very nervous and I’m feeling very sorry for her [Jabeur] already,” joked Osaka.

“I obviously don’t play doubles at all. Just because it’s hard for me to understand it and I’m the type of person that I don’t really like doing something if I’m not good at it.

“But I think it will be really good for me just to practise my serves, my returns and the net game. I also think she would be the perfect partner for me because I think she would make it very fun. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Jabeur is no longer represented by Osaka’s agency Evolve, having split with the Japanese star’s agent Stuart Duguid end of last year, but the pair still get along well and are excited to be joining forces on court.

“For me Ons is the type of person that I always like … I’m so happy for her with everything that she’s achieved and everything that she’s done. She’s a person I would say is very easy for me to root for,” added Osaka.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 10:11 AM