Wimbledon 2019: Out of the spotlight, can Osaka shine again?
"I think it's better for me now to be lower-ranked," Naomi Osaka told reporters at the All England Club this weekend.
Two-time grand slam champion Osaka is set for a long career at the top, yet she did not appear to enjoy her first stint as world number one.
The Japanese was overshadowed even as she made her major breakthrough at the US Open last year, her achievement secondary to an extraordinary outburst from her final opponent and idol Serena Williams.
Osaka triumphed again at the Australian Open in January, though, to become the WTA Tour's top-ranked player with just her third senior title.
But eight tournaments and eight disappointing early exits later, the 21-year-old enters Wimbledon at number two and, seemingly, much happier for it.
"Mentally, it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined," she said. "I don't think there was anything that could have prepared me for that, especially since I'm kind of an overthinker."
Ashleigh Barty now has that pressure and Osaka prefers the position of challenger in London, even if she is determined to wrestle back the number one spot.
"If you win the tournament, you're automatically number one," she added. "That, for sure, is a really big goal of mine. I don't have to think about defending the ranking or anything."
Next time - perhaps in just two weeks - Osaka might be prepared to defend top spot. As we examine, the first attempt represented a steep learning curve.
DUBAI TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS (LOST R2 VS KRISTINA MLADENOVIC)
Osaka split with coach Sascha Bajin after her Australian Open success and then endured a miserable start to her reign as number one. "This was just one match," she said after losing to Mladenovic. "Even if I don't win any matches for the rest of the year, I wouldn't say I'm concerned."
INDIAN WELLS OPEN (LOST R4 V BELINDA BENCIC)
Returning to the scene of her first WTA title, Osaka recovered some form at Indian Wells with new coach Jermaine Jenkins but was then thrashed by Bencic. The top seed insisted: "I tried my best and I don't really have any regrets."
Believe in Bencic @BelindaBencic extends her match win streak against Top 10 opponents to five with her 6-3, 6-1 stunner over defending champion and world No. 1 Naomi Osaka#BNPPO19pic.twitter.com/fixf4DLrx1— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 13, 2019
MIAMI OPEN (LOST R3 V HSIEH SU-WEI)
A rollercoaster third-round match between Osaka and Hsieh, who had faced off in Melbourne, this time went the way of the underdog on another tough day for the number one.
STUTTGART OPEN (WITHDREW SF)
An abdominal injury kept Osaka from playing her semi-final, but she offered a staunch defence of her form following a last-eight fightback against Donna Vekic. "I don't understand why people are saying I'm having a bad season if I won the Australian Open," she said. "I would be lying if I said it wasn't bothering me."
MADRID OPEN (LOST QF V BELINDA BENCIC)
A second defeat of the season at the hands of Bencic came despite the struggling Osaka taking the first set and serving for the match in the third.
INTERNAZIONALI D'ITALIA (WITHDREW QF)
The Japanese ensured she would be top seed at the French Open with a run to the last eight in Rome, but her preparations for the grand slam were then hampered as she withdrew with a hand injury.
FRENCH OPEN (LOST R3 V KATERINA SINIAKOVA)
Osaka's hopes of a third straight major triumph were ended in an error-strewn 6-4 6-2 reverse. "I just feel like there has been a weight on me," she said. "I think me losing is probably the best thing that could have happened."
BIRMINGHAM CLASSIC (LOST R2 V YULIA PUTINTSEVA)
Under pressure from Roland Garros champion Barty in her final tournament before Wimbledon, Osaka crashed out in straight sets to Putintseva and lost her top ranking.