September 7, 2018 / 11:30 PM / 3 months ago

Osaka takes winding path from Japan to U.S. Open final

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As Naomi Osaka sprinted through her matches at the U.S. Open this year, pushing aside anyone who stood in her way, it would have been easy to mistake the young Japanese phenom’s success as predestined.

Sep 6, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates match point against Madison Keys of the United States in a women's semi-final match on day eleven of the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY SPORTS

But the road from her home country to New York, then Florida and finally, a U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, has been a circuitous one, marked by incremental improvements both physically and mentally.

Less than a year after making her WTA qualifying debut in 2013, the then-406th ranked Osaka shocked the sport by knocking out former U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur in the first round at Stanford in July 2014.

Two years later she reached her first WTA final in Tokyo after clinching third-round berths at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and U.S. Open in 2016.

With a repeat third-round result at last year’s U.S. Open, the 20-year-old self-described “perfectionist” Osaka was on a mission to improve on her Grand Slam record.

“Every time I play a Grand Slam, people ask me am I going to go farther than the third round. Then in Australia I went to the fourth round, then people were like, Are you going to go farther than that or is that where you’re going to stop?” she told reporters after reaching this year’s quarter-finals.

Helping mitigate this pressure has been coach Sascha Bajin, the former hitting partner of 23-times Grand Slam champion Williams, with whom Osaka partnered in December 2017.

“I fight myself a lot, so he’s sort of been, like, the peacemaker in between,” said Osaka. “I feel like he’s a really positive person, and he sort of tells me not to be so hard on myself. So I’m grateful for him for that.”

Bajin said this week that the “shy and reserved” player he first met had also finessed her game.

“She’s been a big hitter before I started with her. She had this power. It’s not that I added to her,” Bajin told reporters. “She knew how to play tennis. She maybe didn’t know quite how to handle it or control it.”

‘FIGHT FOR EVERY POINT’

In many ways 2018 has been her breakout year, with Osaka romping past world number one Simona Halep to reach the final at Indian Wells in March where she collected her first career title.

But a three-match losing streak ahead of the U.S. Open, including a first-round exit at Cincinnati last month, left her emotionally raw.

“I was in the locker room (at Cincinnati) and I was just crying because I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really bad at tennis.’ Then I came here and I was just thinking, ‘I’m going to have fun and fight for every point that I can,’” Osaka told reporters.

“In a way I’m glad that I lost those three matches because I think my mentality would have been different coming into this tournament.”

And it is undeniable that the U.S. Open is special to her.

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Osaka, who now resides in Florida, grew up playing in New York and watching the tournament after moving from Japan to Long Island at age three.

It was here in 2017 that she notched her first top-10 win, unseating returning champion Angelique Kerber in the first round, and this year became the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

“I always thought if I were to win a Grand Slam, the first one I’d want to win is the U.S. Open,” said Osaka, who faces Williams on Saturday.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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