August 22, 2019 / 2:20 AM / a month ago

Reigning champ Osaka heads to New York striving for form, fitness and fun

TOKYO (Reuters) - It has been a roller-coaster 12 months for Japan’s Naomi Osaka since her dramatic victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final last year.

Tennis - WTA Premier - Nature Valley Classic - Edgbaston Priory Club, Edgbaston, Birmingham, Britain - June 20, 2019 Japan's Naomi Osaka in action during her second round match against Kazakhstan's Yulia Putintseva Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

After clinching her maiden Grand Slam in a final that will always be remembered for Serena Williams’ extraordinary row with the umpire, Osaka became the first Japanese to claim the world number one ranking when she captured her second slam in January at the Australian Open.

The rising star has gone on to become the second highest-paid female athlete in the world, behind Williams, off the back of a host of lucrative sponsorship deals.

But with the tennis world at her feet, the 21-year-old struggled to kick on.

A difficult few months saw her fail to win a tournament, lose her number one ranking and crash out of Wimbledon in the first round.

She opened up about her struggles on social media earlier this month, calling the last few months the “worst of my life”.

“I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven’t had fun playing tennis since Australia and I’m finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling,” Osaka wrote.

Ahead of her U.S. Open defense, Osaka has also been hit with injury, a knee problem forcing her to retire in the quarter-finals of the Cincinnati Masters last week.

Osaka is adamant she will defend her title, saying she would most likely play in New York even against her doctor’s wishes [M1L8N25C4H3].

Osaka, who changed coach in February, has reclaimed the number one ranking and will be a match for anyone at the U.S. Open if in the right physical and mental shape.

A key challenge for the Japanese will be dealing with the inevitable questions about last year’s final, which left Osaka in tears during the presentation ceremony.

Much of the criticism of Williams centered on how her actions had spoiled a precious moment for Osaka, who was even moved to apologize for beating the home favorite.

Williams has since apologized to Osaka but that does not mean she will take it easy on the Japanese if their paths cross in New York again.

In their first meeting since that infamous final, Williams had little trouble handing out a straight-sets win over Osaka at the Rodgers Cup semi-finals in Toronto earlier this month.

Editing by Peter Rutherfordpeter.rutherford@thomsonreuters.com; +822 6936 1482

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