Naomi Osaka doesn’t get what all the fuss is about, boasting of being able to walk around Melbourne without anybody so much as blinking an eye at the newest grand slam champion.
But after reaching her first Australian Open semifinal with a 6-4 6-1 victory over Elina Svitolina on Wednesday, that could all be able to change for the self-proclaimed “normal” Japanese star.
Not since Kim Clijsters reached the semifinals at Australian Open 2006 had a first-time slam winner gone on to progress as far at their subsequent major.
The 21-year-old remained on course to become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati at Roland Garros 2001 to win her first two majors back-to-back.
“This is something that I have been working on a lot … trying to get deeper in tournaments more consistently. I think I have been able to do that,” Osaka said. “For me right now I just try to keep looking forward. So I’m not really satisfied – like, I am happy that I’m here, but at the same time, I want to keep going. There is more matches to win.”
Osaka’s star rose in a hurry after defeating Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final, and should Williams defeat Karolina Pliskova to book a rematch in the semifinals at Melbourne Park, the hype surrounding Osaka will only surge.
Svitolina had won three of the pair’s five prior meetings, including both in 2018, in Miami and Dubai.
But on Wednesday, it was a more patient and composed Osaka who pulled clear against a fading opponent carrying a neck and right shoulder injury.
“Yeah I mean I tried to be consistent or as consistent as I can,” Osaka said. “She’s a really great player and kind of unfortunate she got injured … but playing against her injured was still really tough.
“For me today I just had one goal and it was to try as hard as I can and not get angry. Didn’t do that too well in the last two rounds so I’m really happy.”
Heading into the match, both women stood a chance at climbing to No.1 in the new rankings after the tournament.
For Osaka, that dream remains alive, while for Svitolina, it is back to Europe for scans on her shoulder and neck.
Still there was no disappointment for the Odessa native.
“Unfortunately I couldn’t produce 100 per cent the game that I wanted,” Svitolina said. “But in the end, she was just playing better today.
“I felt pain from the beginning of the tournament here and there. It was going and coming back. Yeah, unfortunately today was a little bit worse than I expected.”
Against Anastasija Sevastova and Su-Wei Hsieh in her two prior matches, Osaka was forced to fight back from a set down, but there was no such slow start as she snared the early break against Svitolina for 4-2.
It set off a chain of four straight breaks and gave the Japanese player every reason to believe she could continue the trend to close out the opening set.
It took four set points but the fourth seed broke again to seal it when the Ukrainian netted a backhand.
It was going to be a tough ask for Svitolina from here on in. Her opponent had claimed 57 straight matches after winning the opening set.
And when the Ukrainian called for a medical timeout to have her right shoulder treated at 0-3, the writing was on the wall.
Osaka at this point was pummelling consistently short second serves and front-running with the confidence of a woman who knew she belonged at the pointy end of slams.
An ace and a simple overhead back-to-back sealed a resounding at the 70-minute mark.
It was a subdued celebration; out of respect for a hampered opponent and a sign her work here was far from done.
“I already know that to be here is something that a lot of people want, and I know that a few months ago I would have given anything to be in the semifinals of a slam,” Osaka said. “But it’s this weird feeling of, like, you want to do the next big thing.
“And especially now that I won a Grand Slam, I feel like I want to win another one, and I’m so close and I just want to keep going.”
Walking around Melbourne unnoticed will only last so long if this “normal” 21-year-old keeps this up.
Source: Dan Imhoff