You could say that Naomi Osaka’s road to the U.S. Open began on Long Island, moved to Florida and returned full circle to Flushing Meadows.
The 20-year-old, born in Japan, spending six years in Elmont and developing her game while living in Boca Raton, Florida, is through to the semifinals of the U.S. Open after a quick and convincing win over an ailing Lesia Tsurenko, 6-1, 6-1, on Wednesday.
Osaka was 3 when the family moved to Long Island because her father wanted to be closer to his Haitian relatives. Her mother is Japanese, hence her last name, and she plays under the auspices of the Japanese tennis federation.
She’s vague about where she played on Long Island, though she does remember going to a SPORTIME facility. And she does remember visiting the Open, where the seed of inspiration was sewn.
“It was sort of the first tournament that I saw all the people that were playing on TV,” Osaka said. “So I thought it was something really amazing. Just to see them in person and, like, experience the atmosphere, I think it was, like as a kid, I thought it was really cool.”
And who was the coolest? “Serena.”
There is a bit of Serena in Osaka, both in power and empowerment, even though their personalities are on the opposite sides of the net. And she’s coached by Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin.
“I think they really are different people, because the only similarity they have is that they kind of have the same hair, big hair,” Bajin said. “I believe that they kind of want to play the same, you know. They are very powerful, big serves, big hitters, both of them.”
As Osaka steps into her first Grand Slam semifinal, Bajin isn’t worried about stage fright. “I believe that Naomi is one of those individuals who really craves the big stage, so that definitely helps her competing out there and helps my part to, you know, not take it too easy on her and that she has to calm down,” Bajin said. “She always plays better on the big stages than she does on any of the other courts.”
Her match numbers on Wednesday were impressive. She won 20 of 22 first serve points, 10 of 15 on second serve for a total of 30 points out of 37 serves. She made only 11 unforced errors to Tsurenko’s 31, 19 of which were on her faulty backhand. Of the 87 points played, Osaka won 59 of them.
Maybe the most critical number of all in the sweltering conditions, especially in the stifling stillness of Ashe Stadium Court, was that Osaka spent only 57 minutes to get the win. In her five matches in a U.S. Open largely conducted under the tournament’s extreme heat policy, Osaka has spent 5 hours and 56 minutes on court, just about an hour and 11 minutes a match. Her previous one, against Aryna Sabalenka, lasted two hours in a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 win. Of the total of 22 games she has lost in this tournament, 13 of them were against Sabalenka. She beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 6-0, 6-0, in the third round in 50 minutes and Julia Glushko 6-2, 6-0, in the second round, also in 50 minutes.
Tsurenko, who defeated Caroline Wozniacki in the second round, was not herself on Wednesday. “Unfortunately during this tournament I had many issues with my health, and today I was not feeling well,” Tsurenko said. “I just woke up today with a viral illness or whatever it is.”
Osaka won her first WTA Tour title this year at Indian Wells, a big one. But she believes she’s a different player now. “Like just my mentality and stuff,” she said, typically soft-spoken. “Like in Indian Wells I get a bit distracted if I'm in the lead. And now I feel like I'm finding it easier to try to close it up as quickly as I can.”
She’s made a cool run in a hot tournament. Could a final against Serena be in her future?