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Level-headed Osaka thriving in Grand Slam spotlight

She’s loving it: Naomi Osaka appears to thrive on the attention at Brisbane last week © AFP / Saeed KHAN

MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan 8 – If US Open winner Naomi Osaka is feeling the pressure of being the tennis world’s newest Grand Slam champion, she’s hiding it well in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

The Japanese star arrives in Melbourne as the world number four after a stunning victory over Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows that sent the 21-year-old’s profile into the stratosphere.

The manner in which she claimed her maiden Slam was far from ideal — with Serena’s furious tirade against the umpire overshadowing Osaka’s breakthrough moment.

Her tearful post-match demeanour raised concerns the youngster was becoming overwhelmed by the situation.

Combined with the pressure of becoming the first Japanese player to win a major, and the fanatical support that brings, there were fears she could wilt under the spotlight.

Yet she appears to have put the emotional turmoil experienced in New York behind her and is revelling in her status as standard bearer for the next generation of women’s players.

– Off-court attention –

An indication of the steel that lies beneath her humble demeanour came in her outing after the US Open, the Pan-Pacific Open in Tokyo, when she breezed into the final without conceding a set.

She has also dealt with the off-court attention that tennis stardom brings, joking online with Hollywood heartthrob Michael B. Jordan after revealing to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that she had a crush on him.

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Her demeanour since arriving in Australia has been relaxed and upbeat, posing for photographs with koalas and joking with the media in press conferences.

It’s a far cry from when Osaka came to Melbourne Park last year as an unknown ranked 68. Yet she says she is unfazed by her sudden rise.

Naomi Osaka makes firends with a koala named “Sprocket” in Brisbane last week © AFP / Patrick HAMILTON

“I never feel pressure to perform. I enjoy Grand Slams the most,” she said before last week’s Brisbane International. “I always feel there is a certain degree of pressure but it’s from myself.”

Australia’s Samantha Stosur, who won the 2011 US Open, praised the way Osaka was handling stardom and predicted more success for the youngster.

“I was really impressed with Naomi, how she won the US Open and then went into Asia and made the Tokyo final,” she said.

“I know when I won, I had my celebration and barely hit a ball for two weeks and then went to Tokyo and struggled. I just wasn’t prepared, I was still living on this cloud.

“The expectation on me was really elevated… it wasn’t so easy to deal with, but if Naomi was able to back up in Tokyo I am sure this summer will be good for her too.”

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