ReutersIt has been a roller-coaster 12 months for Naomi Osaka since her dramatic victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final last year.
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 No. 1 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 No. 1 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 quarterfinals 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.
Osaka, who changed her coach in February, has reclaimed the No. 1 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 semifinals in Toronto earlier this month.
Both No. 1s are top U.S. seeds
Meanwhile, world No. 1s and title holders Novak Djokovic and Osaka have been named the top seeds for the U.S. Open, which starts on Monday in New York.
Three-time U.S. Open champion Djokovic, who comes into the tournament having won his fifth Wimbledon title, is followed in the seedings by 2017 winner Rafael Nadal.
Roger Federer is set to kick off his quest for a 21st Grand Slam crown as the third seed.
He is followed by Austrian Dominic Thiem, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev and Germany’s Alexander Zverev.
Former champions in the list of 32 men’s seeds also include Marin Cilic (2014) of Croatia who is 22nd and Stan Wawrinka (2016) of Switzerland who is 23rd.
French Open winner Ash Barty is seeded second behind Japan’s Osaka, followed by Czech Karolina Pliskova and Wimbledon champion Simona Halep.
American Serena Williams, last year’s finalist who is seeking a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam title, is seeded eighth.