Want to LOL? Just listen to anything rising star Naomi Osaka has to say
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- During a lunch break with her team this week at Indian Wells, Naomi Osaka was teaching her coach Sascha Bajin some words in Japanese. He asked her how to say, "idiot." She told him it was "kutsu." He promptly started repeating it and calling people the word. She couldn't stop laughing.
Later in the day, she revealed why: Kutsu actually means "Shoe."
Such is the humor of Osaka, one of the brightest young stars on the WTA Tour. At just 20 years old, the Japanese-born tennis star has had an incredible rise since making her debut in 2016 with wins over top-10 players like Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams, and a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open earlier this year. She was named the WTA's Newcomer of the Year in 2016.
Currently ranked No. 44 in the world, she has had an electric run at the BNP Paribas Open, with wins over Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, and Tuesday, Osaka advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 5-7, 6-1 win over Maria Sakkari.
Along the way, she has charmed fans and reporters alike with her quirky, offbeat sense of humor and personality. With a big serve and explosive power, and her instantly quotable one-liners and occasional stream of consciousness during interviews -- she previously has recited the Pokemon theme song and once admitted she couldn't stop thinking of a commercial about mesothelioma and a woman running in a field during a practice session -- she has become a player to watch in Indian Wells.
"She's still building her game," 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN analyst Chris Evert said. "It's a process; she doesn't have everything yet. I was very impressed when she came on the scene, how young she was, she had a lot of power, a big serve, big groundstroke game. I've seen a lot of improvement over the past year in terms of her fitness, and I know she's working on the mental side of her game and on confidence, but I think that will come with more experience on the tour.
"She's very playful when she wants to be. She's got a good heart and a good soul. I think she could be top 10 in the next two years, for sure."
Representing Japan but raised in the United States and based in Florida, Osaka has a Haitian-born father and Japanese-born mother and proudly mentions all parts of her heritage when given the opportunity. And despite her jokes on her coach, she still doesn't feel completely confident in her Japanese-speaking ability, despite the good-natured pleas of the Japanese media. When asked if she would start speaking in it at news conferences, she said, "It kind of stresses me out a little bit. But OK, I'll start again, like, maybe in Miami."
A moment later: "OK. Tomorrow maybe. Day after tomorrow maybe."
That was after her second-round win, and she still hasn't said anything in Japanese, but everyone seems content to let her talk in whatever language she so chooses, just as long as she keeps talking.
Over the offseason, Osaka teamed up Bajin, who previously worked with Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki. He didn't know much about Osaka, other than what he saw on the court and wasn't sure what to expect. But after two trial practices together, in which Bajin sprained his ankle (a story for a different day), he was impressed.
"She's pretty shy and doesn't talk much so I just didn't know much about her beforehand," he said. "I always thought she had a big game, a lot of potential, but I thought she was going to be super arrogant, because she doesn't talk much. But I was surprised. She's super sweet and has a very unique sense of humor; she's very sarcastic and makes fun of herself. It's super fun to be around her. She's really down to earth."
Osaka, who grew up idolizing Williams, has taken solace in Bajin's constant reminders that the 23-time Grand Slam champion also struggled with things throughout their time together. "For her, it's important to hear that it's not just her," Bajin said. "Everyone struggles, even Serena, and that's the only way you can actually get better."
He has been pleased with Osaka's work ethic and ability to constantly make adjustments and self-correct during matches and at practice. He has been emphasizing the importance of a positive attitude and tries to help her not get in her own head so much. She's grateful for that but, in typical Osaka fashion, has an interesting way of explaining it.
"[Yeah, yeah,] the experience, blah, blah, blah," Osaka joked.
Osaka went on to say he gets aggravated easily.
"And then he decides he wants to fight for justice or whatever, so he'll just start arguing," Osaka continued. "For example, if there is a path, and the path is blocked off for no reason but you can go around it pretty easily, he's just going to argue with the person that blocked the path. But you can just go around, you know?
(See what we mean about Osaka's stream of consciousness?)
Bajin is so determined to keep his young star happy that he's willing to join her on whatever off-court adventures she thinks up. The two have bonded over desert safaris, sand surfing and even zip lining over Dubai. He calls himself a "ride-or-die type of guy," as evidenced by the time they were about to jump off a Dubai skyscraper. But it's those moments that help build trust and prove how far he'll go for her.
Osaka will next face world No. 5 Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday during the featured night match. She's appreciative of the growing fan support but doesn't really understand it.
"I don't know why they cheer for me, honestly," Osaka said. "I have no idea. But I am grateful for it. So for whatever reason, I want to say thank you."
Bajin is not surprised about Osaka's increasing popularity and success and expects it to continue. Having worked with some of the biggest names in the game, he knows what it takes to reach the next level and can recognize talent and potential when he sees it.
"Everybody I've worked with is very different from one another," Bajin said. "Vika is very different than Caroline, and Caroline is very different than Serena, but there is greatness within everybody and I can see that within Naomi too. She really does have that game, that potential, that calmness within her. I've seen that with her now. I see that greatness within her, and I see that she can be really good."