This time last year, Naomi Osaka was ranked No. 59 and preparing for her Wimbledon debut while still in search of her first WTA title.
A lot has changed over the past 12 months for the promising 20-year-old and expectations for her second appearance at the All England Club, this time as the No. 18 seed, are much higher.
Osaka soared into the top 25 with a stunning triumph in March at Indian Wells — often regarded as the WTA’s fifth major. She closed her giggly acceptance speech — which she dubbed the “worst” of all time — by saying, “Umm . . . yeah . . . I think that’s it.”
The tennis world was in love.
“Unfiltered, unabashed and unique, Osaka speaks with a child-like wonder where the word ‘like’ is never more than a couple of sentences away,” Charlie Eccleshare wrote in the Telegraph.
“It’s just her. She is lovable the way she delivers the lines. It’s so natural,” the BBC’s David Law said on the Tennis Podcast.
The picture hasn’t been quite as rosy since. Osaka never found her rhythm during the clay season, compiling a 5-4 record and bowing out in the third round at the French Open.
But she should be more comfortable on Wimbledon’s grass courts, a surface that rewards power hitters and is tailored to suit her high-risk, high-reward brand of tennis.
“Sometimes the ball bounces a bit weird (on grass) but other than that I think everything’s pretty fun,” she told a news conference Saturday.
“I feel like I’ve played a lot of good matches on grass this year and compared to last year I feel more comfortable.”
A semifinal run at a tuneup event in early June indicates as much, but she followed that effort up with a second-round retirement due to an abdominal injury the next week. She brushed off any concerns Saturday, saying she had a pain-free practice session earlier in the day.
If her fitness holds up, Osaka could be poised to make some noise in London and her first significant test may come in the third round against Angelique Kerber, a two-time major champion and 2016 Wimbledon finalist.
Osaka’s talent is undeniable and it may not be long before she starts making regular runs into the second week of majors.
Kurumi Nara is the only other Japanese woman in the singles draw and may not be long for the tournament, having drawn world No. 1 Simona Halep in the first round.
On the men’s side, Kei Nishikori comes into the tournament as the No. 24 seed and has played to a solid — if unspectacular — 16-9 record in 2018 after an injury-filled 2017 campaign.
Grass hasn’t been his preferred surface, having never gone past the fourth round in nine previous Wimbledon appearances.
“You’ve got to really use your legs. The point is quick. It’s different than clay so I’ve had a couple issues but I think I’m getting stronger,” he told a news conference on Saturday.
The draw wasn’t kind to the Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, native and a potential matchup with the talented but volatile Nick Kyrgios looms in the third round. If the mild-mannered Nishikori emerges from that matchup of opposites, world No. 3 Alexander Zverev would likely await on so-called Manic Monday.
Yoshihito Nishioka, Yuichi Sugita and Taro Daniel have also booked places in the main draw. Sugita has had the most success on grass, with his lone top-level title coming on the surface at last year’s Antalya Open. He’s fresh off a confidence-boosting straight-sets win over French Open finalist Dominic Thiem at the Gerry Weber Open.