Dubai Tennis: Beaten Naomi Osaka concedes struggling to handle pressure

World No 1 breaks down after defeat to Kristina Mladenovic, saying she is not comfortable with attention she is receiving after recent successes

Japan's Naomi Osaka reacts in a match against Kristina Mladenovic of France during a match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
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A tearful Naomi Osaka conceded she was struggling to handle the pressure and attention of being women's world No 1 after she crashed out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday night.

The second-round match against Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic was the 21-year-old's first since going top of the WTA rankings after winning the Australian Open in January.

She put in a error-strewn performance on Centre Court, having her serve broken seven times as she was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by the world No 67.

"I don't think I necessarily understand what position I'm in, in a way, because last year I wasn't even anywhere close to this ranking," said Osaka, who was No 48 in the rankings this time last year. "People didn't pay attention to me. That's something that I'm comfortable with."

Osaka briefly stopped talking as she wiped away a tear, before adding: "I don't know why I'm crying. Yeah. I don't know why this is happening."

Tuesday had also been her first time on court since she had surprisingly split with her coach Sascha Bajin after the success in Melbourne.

Osaka had been forced to deny the move had been over money on Sunday and when asked how she had been able to switch of from the focus on that to play tennis, she said: "I mean, I couldn't. That's the result. This match is the result of that.

"Yeah, I mean, I'm pretty sure, like, you guys – no offence to you guys – but I'm pretty sure as time goes on, you guys will stop talking about it. For now, it's like the biggest tennis news, I guess.

"See, it's a little bit hard because I feel like people are staring at me, and not like in a good way."

Of her display, she added: “I thought I played pretty bad. I mean, there are days that you have like that, and you just have to find a way to, like, win no matter what the situation is.

“I haven't been practising well recently. I just thought, like, it would go away during the matches. I was kind of counting on that. That didn't happen.”

The result was a remarkable transformation in fortune for Mladenovic. Twelve months ago she had played Osaka at the same stage and had been trounced, winning only four games.

Kristina Mladenovic, of France, returns the ball to Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during a match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Kristina Mladenovic is proud of the way she held her composure on court against world No 1 Naomi Osaka. Kamran Jebreili / AP Photo

Now she has returned the favour and with her opponent now at the top of the rankings.

"For sure it means a lot," the 25-year-old said. "At the moment, there's a reason why she's the best player in the world.

"I'm really proud how I stay composed. At the end it's not easy to close it out. It's not easy to play with that pressure."

Mladenovic, who was as once as high as No 10 in the WTA standings in October 2017, is hoping this success can be the catalyst for her to return to the upper echelons of the sport.

"I worked a lot to change some things, to maybe go a step back to just improve and come back where I was, which is top 10. It's my goal," she said.

"But I'm not really focused on the paper [the rankings], but more like what I produce on the court. Even if the outcome wasn't positive today, I would have been happy about the game because I feel my tennis was good again."

Mladenovic's reward for her victory is a match-up with Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro in what will be the third match on Centre Court on Wednesday.

In Tuesday's other late action, No 5 seed Angelique Kerber came back from being 5-1 down in the first set to prevail 7-6, 6-3 over Dalila Jakupovic.