• AFP-Jiji, Reuters

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Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka of Japan says she is building self-confidence and belief while trying to be less of a perfectionist on and off the tennis court.

The defending U.S. Open champion beat 87th-ranked Czech Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-1, in 93 minutes on Monday to reach a second-round matchup with Serbian qualifier Olga Danilovic.

Osaka said she didn't feel pressure but was nervous nonetheless as she tries to make life changes.

"I tell people I'm a perfectionist. For me, something that's less than perfection, even though it might be something great, is a disappointment," Osaka said. "I don't really think that's a healthy way of thinking, so something that I really want to change.

"In this tournament I just want to be happy knowing I did my best and even though I didn't play perfect I was able to win a match in two sets, or if I have to battle, play a match in three sets — know that I made a couple mistakes, but it's OK at the end of the day because I'll learn.

"It's not really a tournament thing. It's more like a life thing. I hope I can keep this mindset throughout my life going forward."

Osaka withdrew from the French Open after one match over mental health issues, saying she didn't want to talk with reporters after matches, and skipped Wimbledon as well. And in the run-up to the year's final major, much of the talk around Osaka focused on her inconsistent play and relative lack of time on court as she crashed out in the third round of the Tokyo Olympics and the Western & Southern Open.

This week, she has opened up about her feelings on social media and to journalists, saying she needs to respect herself more.

"It has been a gradual situation," she said. "There were multiple events in my life that led me into thinking the way that I do.

"For me one of the biggest things is hearing a little kid telling me that I'm their favorite player or I'm a role model. Instinctively the first thought in my mind is 'Why?'

"I feel like I have to sort of embrace more the feeling, the honor that they're telling me that, and I should believe more in myself.

"I feel like if you don't believe in yourself, then other people won't believe in your self. It's more like a realization thing."

Naomi Osaka celebrates after her win. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Naomi Osaka celebrates after her win. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Osaka said her nervous energy over the first round of a Grand Slam mingled with the excitement of having spectators back after no fans were allowed in 2020 due to COVID-19.

"It was definitely a bit weird feeling. But I think I was more excited than nervous in the end," she said.

Unseeded Bouzkova held her own through much of the first set but failed to convert on four break point opportunities.

Osaka, who fired 21 winners but committed 13 unforced errors in the first set, broke Bouzkova's serve at 5-4 to win the opener and never looked back, winning the first five games of the second despite struggling with her first serve.

The world No. 3 closed out the match with a forehand winner, offering a smile and a wave to the stands that were empty a year ago.

"I'm the type of player that wants to entertain a crowd as well. I think last year I was just really business," she said.

"I wouldn't try to hit a crazy serve or anything like that. Of course, I'm only one match in here and I don't think I've gotten that distracted yet."

Osaka's only previous meeting with Bouzkova came at the first round of the Australian Open in 2020, where she also won in straight sets.

"I thought today's match was really tough. I haven't played her in a while. I guess just to be able to be the first night match and to win in two sets was really important to me," she told reporters.

The match marked a reassuring return to form for the 23-year-old, who looks the likeliest candidate to upset world No. 1 Ash Barty on the New York hardcourts.

Osaka said she felt at home at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she won her first major title three years ago.

"I'm always nervous during the first round in a Slam," said Osaka.

"It felt kind of surreal to walk onto the court and to hear an actual audience this time. To see people and to hear their energy, because last year the automated crowd noise was kind of the same all the time.

"But here, people are reacting in real time, so it was cool."

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