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Naomi Osaka drawn into tough group in debut appearance at WTA Finals

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

WTA Finals

U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka faces a potentially tough test in her debut appearance at the WTA Finals.

She was placed in the same group as Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens during the draw for the season-ending event at a glitzy gala ceremony on Friday.

In addition to Wimbledon champion Kerber and 2017 U.S. Open winner Stephens, Osaka will also face Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens, who was named the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year on Friday, in the Red Group.

“I think everyone in my group is a really good player so I’m just really excited to get to play them. I’m just looking forward to every match,” Osaka said.

This has been a banner year for Osaka, who celebrated her 21st birthday on Tuesday.

She won her first career WTA title in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Then in September she defeated Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final to becomes the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam title.

After that breakthrough accomplishment, Osaka has received several lucrative endorsement deals and been featured prominently in the media, including an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in the United States.

Osaka said her life had changed since the U.S. Open but vowed to remain focused on tennis.

“With the recognition part, I do feel a bit different,” she told reporters.

“Like before it was only Japan I felt like people knew me. But now like . . . in the airports and stuff . . . I just think that’s (the attention) kind of funny.

“For me, I can’t change who I am. I haven’t really thought about changing my personality. I just focus on my matches, so I just play tennis and I leave the rest up to everyone that I trust.”

Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki headlines the White Group, which also includes Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina and former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova.

“All the best players are here so there’s no easy matches,” Wozniacki said.

“I’m just excited to start the competition and do my best. As defending champion I want to defend my title and end the season on a high.”

Play begins on Sunday with Kvitova looking to extend her 7-1 career record against Svitolina, while Australian Open champion Wozniacki takes on the Czech Republic’s Pliskova.

Osaka and Stephens face off on Monday before Kerber takes on Bertens.