Naomi Osaka’s star continues to shine bright in the California desert as the 20-year-old Japanese stormed into her first Premier Mandatory semi-final with a straight-sets win over Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday in Indian Wells.
Osaka, who is guaranteed a career-high ranking of at least 31 next week, is a revelation both on the court and off it, and one of the best things about her run here at the BNP Paribas Open is that she gets to sit with the press every day, showing more of her quirky sense of humour combined with wisdom beyond her years.
Here are things you should know about Osaka’s fortnight in Indian Wells so far…
I don’t even know what’s in my bag tbh 😩🤷🏽♀️ pic.twitter.com/3EzGyFQ11t
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 12, 2018
RESPECT AND AMBITION
While Osaka shows great respect towards her peers and for the history of the game, she also has boundless ambition.
“I was just thinking that I would be really disrespectful to like start getting angry if I’m playing against Sharapova. Like who do I think I am to start getting angry while playing her?” Osaka said after her first round win over Maria Sharapova when she was asked how she stayed composed after the Russian had broken back in the second set.
When I told her on Tuesday she was the first Japanese woman since 1996 to reach the quarter-finals of Indian Wells, she said: “I would like to make new records, like, things that never happened before instead of breaking things that people have already done.”
On Wednesday, she became the first woman from Japan to make the semi-finals at a Premier Mandatory tournament.
When I told her about that new milestone, Osaka explained how she has far greater objectives, and is gunning for her compatriot Kei Nishikori’s records.
“I’m happy, but also I feel like it’s cooler to go to the finals and win it, so I’m going to try to do that,” said Osaka.
“But yeah. I mean, I feel like I want to break records for male and female. I’m coming for Kei,” she added with a laugh. “So, yeah, that would be a cool thing to do.”
— WTA (@WTA) March 4, 2018
SHE’S DOING IT THE HARD WAY
Osaka’s route to the semi-finals looks like this:
First round: Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4
Second round:  Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-2
Third round: Sachia Vickery 6-3, 6-3
Fourth round: Maria Sakkari 6-1, 5-7, 6-1
Quarter-finals:  Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-3
The average ranking of her opponents this fortnight is 47.2 and she has spent a total of 7 hours and 35 minutes on court.
Osaka was asked if it actually helped that she had to bring her A-game from the start of the tournament since she played Sharapova in her opening match.
“I get what you’re saying. Like, a tiny bit, and also not really. Because for me, I find it easier to play against the bigger players just because you know you have to constantly keep up the concentration and you can’t really afford to lose points,” explained Osaka.
“So I’m glad I was able to play them, and I’m glad I was able to play two night matches on center. So I feel like it did jump-start me quite fast. But also, I see no bad points about playing, like, a lower-ranked person too instead of playing Sharapova in the first round.”
.@Naomi_Osaka_ downs Sharapova, 6-4, 6-4!
— WTA (@WTA) March 8, 2018
SOLID ON SERVE
Osaka has won 74.2 per cent of the points on her first serve throughout the tournament. It is the highest percentage of all the quarter-finalists. Her 12 aces are the sixth-most struck of all the players in the draw and the second-most of all the quarter-finalists behind Petra Martic, who fired 18.
The young Japanese has also won 64.3 per cent of her service points, which is the second-highest percentage across all players in the draw and has won 77.6 per cent of her service games.
CALM AND COMPOSED
The temperature dropped significantly on Wednesday and players who had been practicing in the heat the past 10 days were suddenly wearing long sleeves on court and dealing with slower than usual conditions and strong winds throughout most of the day.
Osaka seemed unfazed by it all in her 6-2, 6-3 dismissal of world No. 5 Pliskova in the quarter-finals.
“I wasn’t really paying too much attention on it. I mean, I feel like when I move, I’m not really cold, so that didn’t bother me. But in the morning I saw that it was really windy, so I was thinking it was going to be windy later, but it wasn’t that bad. So the conditions weren’t, like, that important today for me,” said Osaka.
If you want to get an idea of how level-headed she is, here’s what Osaka said when asked whether she felt like this Indian Wells was a breakout tournament for her or not.
“A little bit both. I feel like this year I have been more consistent. So yes and no at the same time, because I feel like all the matches I have played at the start of the year, sort of they have been leading up to this. And I just want to keep this level throughout the entire year, because that’s what the good players do,” said the world No. 44.
Osaka is now 2-4 lifetime against top-five opposition and 3-11 against top-10 players.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT WITH HER
Osaka’s humour and fun personality have been at the forefront of most of her press conferences this fortnight. Here are some snippets from her conversations with the media.
Q. What are you pleased with the most so far this tournament?
Osaka: That I’m still here (smiling).
Q. What video games are keeping you occupied at the moment?
Osaka: It’s called EQ Worlds. It’s the most boring game ever, but if you play it with somebody, then it could be fun. But I’m just using that to keep my time occupied that I don’t get depressed that I can’t play Overwatch.
Q. Honest answer: Who is more famous, you or Taro? Did you actually talk to him to get that photo?
Osaka: Yeah, with a supervised adult, because — so I was gonna be, like, Wouldn’t it be cool if I just took a picture with him, right? Yeah, and then I was too nervous, so we just took a picture with everybody.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 14, 2018
Q. Are you excited now or you are very calm?
Q. Now, yeah.
Osaka: No, I’m hungry and I’m sleepy. I mean, those are the main two feelings I have right now.
Question about whether her coach Sascha Bajin helps showing her the ropes traveling from city to city on tour.
Osaka: The thing is, okay, so, we were having, like, a debate, because he’s always like – once we go to this city, blah, blah, blah, I can take you anywhere, because it’s my city, right? I’m, like, um, he said that about New York. But the thing is, New York is sort of my city because I grew up there, so he’s going to have to pick a different city… I went somewhere with that question and I can’t go back.
Then I wanted to say something else. Oh, yeah. With the experience, blah, blah, blah.
I mean, he’s really helpful with that. I feel like — but he gets triggered very easily like — but other than that, he’s cool and stuff.
Chung, just two months earlier, had won the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, besting a field of eight of the top 21-and-under players in the world.
The 21-year-old from Suwon then enjoyed a major breakthrough, defeating Novak Djokovic en route to the semis in Melbourne.
Chung recovered from his blisters and has since made three consecutive quarter-finals in Delray Beach, Acapulco and now Indian Wells, where he has a rematch with Federer on Thursday following his 6-1, 6-3 success over Pablo Cuevas on Wednesday. Chung sealed the deal against Cuevas on his 10th match point.
His 2018 record is an impressive 15 wins and 5 losses.
The bespectacled young talent is into his first ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final and knows he is up against a Federer who hasn’t lost a match yet this year and is a remarkable 15-0 on the season.
“He is playing really good this year so far, as well, so I don’t know. Just playing really fast and good serve, good baseline. He plays everything good. I’m just trying to enjoy on the court,” said the 26th-ranked Chung of Federer.
Federer posted his 60th match win at Indian Wells with a 7-5, 6-4 success over Frenchman Jeremy Chardy on Wednesday. In windy conditions, the Swiss defending champion landed 51 per cent of his first serves in but did not lose a single point on any of those first serves (won 25/25 first serve points).
Point of the day!
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) March 15, 2018
This is Federer’s best start to a season since 2006, when he began the year with a 16-0 record. The 36-year-old top seed says it was tough to watch Chung in pain during their Australian Open semi-final, and that he “felt for him”. Federer is looking forward to facing an in-form and healthy Chung this time around.
“He seems like a nice guy, very level-headed. I think similarities to Novak’s (Djokovic’s) game are particular, which is mostly in his movement, the way he’s able to slide to his forehand and to his backhand with the open stance, which not many guys do or do it as extensively as Chung does,” said Federer of his South Korean opponent.
“That’s the only similarity I see. You know, service motion, all the other motions are very, very different. It’s a Chung motion, if you like. Nobody has that kind of motion, I think, which is good.
“But I see where the similarities come from with Novak and it’s not a bad one to have, to be honest, because Novak has maybe the best footwork on hard courts we have ever seen.”
Chung grew up idolising Djokovic and his playing style and baseline game have certainly driven people to draw comparisons between the two.
His consistency this season has been incredible, having made the quarter-finals or better in five of the six tournaments he has contested so far.
“It’s just a question for Chung to see that he can maintain that level, you know, with the blister, with injuries, over the course of the next 10, 15 years to make sure he stays injury-free and doesn’t get injured three months of the year,” continued Federer, who is 67-5, with nine titles, since returning at the start of 2017 from a left knee injury.
“But it’s highly explosive, it’s highly impressive what he does, and I think he’s going to be a great player. How good will still remain to be seen. I have a lot of respect for him as a player, and I think he’s going to be, yeah, very successful.”
A late surge from Cuevas had @hyeonchung on the ropes but he gets it done in straights!
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) March 14, 2018
When Daria Kasatkina tries to describe the special connection she has formed with her coach Philippe Dehaes and why they’ve been working well together so far, the young Russian struggles to find the words.
“He’s trying to listen to me,” said the 20-year-old, who defeated Caroline Wozniacki for a second time this season to reach the quarter-finals of Indian Wells on Tuesday.
“It’s tough to explain. It’s just coming from inside, you know. It’s not, like, just one part is changing or another part is changing. It’s like everything together. Small things are making the difference…
“It’s really tough to find right people which would be around you, like, I don’t know, 300 days per year, 24 hours. It’s tough to find your people, and I hope I found them.”
Kasatkina, enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 19 this fortnight, has been showing great progress week on week so far this season and is coming off a runner-up showing in Dubai, where she saved a combined five match points in her victories over Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta, before falling to Elina Svitolina in the final.
With her back against the wall, Kasatkina is as dangerous as ever, and she showed that fighting ability once again against world No. 2 Wozniacki in Indian Wells on Tuesday, where the Russian was behind in both sets but managed to seal the deal 6-4, 7-5. She faces 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber in Thursday’s quarter-finals.
Kasatkina’s record against top-two opposition now is a stunning 5-3.
This year alone, Kasatkina has defeated three top-five opponents and she posted victories over each of the four reigning Grand Slam champions (Jelena Ostapenko, Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Wozniacki) within the past seven months.
Dehaes, a Belgian coach who teamed up with Kasatkina last fall ahead of the Kremlin Cup, has great belief in his student’s abilities.
“I trust her. I don’t try to come and put too much information in her head because for me, she is an artist,” Dehaes told Sport360.
“So she has to just respect one or two very important rules in her game and also in the head and after that I have to trust her.
“She didn’t ask me to come on the court (during Muguruza match in Dubai) but if she asked me to come I was ready to say ‘Dasha don’t ask me what you have to do because actually you know what you have to do, it’s just having the capacity to do it’. And make some crazy things and play this tennis that is sleeping in here and that she has to just, like a flower, come like this (bloom).”
Down a set and a break, a down and out Kasatkina got a much-needed pep talk from coach Philip Dehaes.
“You’re very close. You want this? It’s beautiful out here. The weather is nice. Let’s stay another two hours.”
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 21, 2018
Dehaes’ on-court pep talks have already become a big hit with tennis fans online, with videos of him talking to Kasatkina during her epic comeback matches in Dubai shared all over social media.
“You’re very close. You want this? You want to continue the fight? It’s beautiful out here. The weather is beautiful, full of people. Let’s stay another two hours, okay?” Dehaes told Kasatkina during a changeover in her match against Konta in Dubai. She smiled after those last words and ended up saving two match points and winning the contest.
“He has become so popular after (that speech). Famous guy,” jokes Kasatkina.
“Actually, the way he’s on-court coaching, he’s the same way in the life. We were having so much fun during the practice, off the court. Yeah, I’m pretty happy now…
“I ask him, like, how you are finding these kind of words. He says, ‘I don’t know. Just coming from my heart’.”
Asked if she has a favourite speech she’s received so far from Dehaes, Kasatkina says: “The speech, which was in Dubai, the most famous one. He’s like, ‘let’s stay two more hours here’. Actually, I stayed exactly two more hours on the court.
“After I said, ‘why you couldn’t say one hour, one-and-a-half, at least?’ ‘No, I was enjoying being on the court watching that tennis’. I say, ‘Good. Good job’.”
Kasatkina believes she’s been feeling more confident on the big stages ever since she joined forces with Dehaes, whom she says is not surprised at any of her major wins.
Philip Dehaes explaining to Daria Kasatkina why and how she has to be more aggressive and take her chances. “If you miss, you miss. What can we do? But until now she is not better than you. You are a little bit afraid.” #DDFTennis pic.twitter.com/CghocLZEup
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 24, 2018
“Of course I knew she has the capacity to be so involved in the fight. The thing is that because she’s very young, she has to do it and show to herself that she can do it,” Dehaes said in Dubai after her comeback wins over Konta and Muguruza.
“And here she did in a big tournament against the top girls, it’s a big improvement for her. She will learn a lot from this…
“The key is not to beat the 1, 2, 3, 4… it’s absolutely a great bonus, but today she is 25 and sometimes she has problems against girls who have a lower ranking because she feels that she cannot lose, blah blah blah, a lot of stuff like this.
“So mentally she has to improve to play her best level against girls who are not so good as Muguruza, Wozniacki, or Konta, which is easier mentally because you have a bit like nothing to lose, you have not too much expectation and then you’re better.
“The key is to do what she did today almost every week against everybody.”
Kasatkina has many unique abilities. She reads the game like no other, blurring the line between instinct and tactics and choosing her shots like she would decide on a chess move.
“She outsmarted me today, which is fair enough,” said Wozniacki on Tuesday after losing to Kasatkina.
Kasatkina agrees, and explains that both her and Wozniacki played a very tactical match.
“Tennis is a mind game, and today was especially this one,” said Kasatkina.
Bend It Like @DKasatkina!
— WTA (@WTA) March 14, 2018
The world No. 19 also has a rare combination of having the ability to hit with lots of power, while also being capable of slicing and dicing to mix up the pace.
“It’s very rare, it’s why for me she has huge capacity for sure to be, one day, maybe in two or three years, one of the best tennis players in the world,” said Dehaes of that particular combo.
“And the main point of course is to win a big, big tournament. Because it’s not a question about ranking. If you’re 20, 25, 15, 18, it’s a bit the same. Now it’s about going to win one of the big four, and to prove to herself she can be part of the best ones.”
Kasatkina will be the top-ranked Russian when the new standings are released after Indian Wells, moving past Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Vesnina, whom she beat in Dubai en route to the final.
Kasatkina calls Vesnina her “Tennis Mama” and the pair have a good relationship of the court.
“She’s a very talented and sweet girl and big fighter,” Vesnina says of Kasatkina.
“I’m really happy about her new partnership with her new coach. I think it’s working really well. Yeah, she’s 20-years-old, and let’s see, you know. I think this year she will break through.
“She needs to have results in the big tournaments, you know. She has the game for that.”