Naomi Osaka loves New York. She moved to the city from Japan when she was three years old before eventually relocating to Florida. She feeds off of the energy of the place, takes long walks around Manhattan on her days off and has been eating salmon bagels for breakfast every morning.
On Saturday, she served her opponent, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a double-bagel, cold, to reach the fourth round of the US Open for the first time. She next takes on in-form 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, who eased past Petra Kvitova 7-5, 6-1 to reach the last-16 on her maiden main draw appearance in New York.
She is the first Japanese woman to reach the last-16 at the US Open since 2004 when Ai Sugiyama and Shinobu Asagoe both advanced to the second week.
Osaka has played three matches so far this fortnight, dropping a total of seven games.
Her 6-0, 6-0 triumph against Sasnovich saw her hit just three unforced errors.
The 20-year-old, who made a stunning run to the title at Indian Wells last March, spoke recently about struggling to adapt to the heightened expectations that followed her success in the California desert. It seems said struggles are well behind her.
“I just remember she hit three really good shots, I think, in the first game to get up 40-0 on my serve. And then from that moment, I was just thinking that I’m going to try to make as many shots as possible. I ended up winning that game,” Osaka said of her third round victory over Sasnovich.
“For some reason, my momentum kept going. But other than that, I didn’t really have, like, a particular mindset or anything.”
Osaka never took her foot off the gas pedal throughout the match, which is something she is particularly proud of.
“I used to have a little bit of — like if I would go up 3-0, then I would create this drama where I relax a lot, and then I let the person come back into the match,” admits the 20th-seeded Osaka.
“So I think, for me, now that I’m able to beat people at easier scores like this, I think I have improved a lot. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the score when I was playing today. I was just thinking, like, the stuff that I had to do to keep winning.”
Her coach, Sascha Bajin, whom she hired end of last year, was at a loss for words when asked what he was most pleased with from Osaka’s third round whitewash.
“There were so many good things I don’t even know what to say,” Bajin told Sport360.
“She served well, her attitude was good, that she maintained it – I think what I’m mostly proud of is that she maintained the same intensity throughout the match. And even though Sasnovich had game point late in the match, she didn’t just go for too much but still tried to win that game as well and win every point, no matter what the score was and just kept competing. So that’s something I’m really proud of.”
Osaka seems quiet and reserved, but unlike someone like Simona Halep, who said the hustle and bustle of New York City makes for quite the draining experience at the US Open, Osaka thrives on the atmosphere here.
“For me, New York is very nostalgic. I used to play here when I was a little kid, so these courts aren’t new to me,” said Osaka.
“When I come here, I always have memories of when I was a kid. Sometimes I walk down the streets I walked down when I was a little kid. Everything feels so much smaller. It’s a very interesting feeling. But every time I come here, I’m very happy.”
She added: “In the mornings I don’t play my matches, I walk around and hear the lovely honking and stuff. Yeah, like, any afternoon that I have time off, I would go and walk around again. I just like walking in the city, I think. It’s just there is a lot of energy. And then you come back to the hotel very angry because everyone just makes you very angry,” she says with a smile. “I feel like it’s a good exercise.”
Having cruised through her opening three rounds, Osaka next faces an opponent who is on an eight-match winning streak and is high on confidence from capturing her maiden title in New Haven last week. Bajin is not worried that Osaka’s double-bagel in the third round would give her a sense of over-confidence.
“Naomi isn’t the girl that would get over-confident. When you talk to her, or see her, she doesn’t look like that. I know she’s not like that, and it’s also my job to keep her grounded. She knows that all these other girls deserve to be in the fourth round just as well and knows that anybody can beat anybody on any given day, so it’s not a problem or issue with Naomi,” he said.
“We’ll take it one match at a time, make sure she focuses on herself and shouldn’t be too worried about who’s on the other side. And just enjoy this also a little bit. The fun part is going up, and the other part is maintaining up there. But this is something that she should enjoy, that she worked very hard for, that her whole family worked very hard to get her there, so I just hope she enjoys it and then ultimately she’ll play better too.”
Asked if she feels like she’s playing the best tennis of her career, Osaka said: “I don’t want to sound negative, but no, because I feel like I can always do something better. That’s one really good thing about me, but also it’s something negative, because I’m never satisfied. But, I mean, of course I feel like I’m progressing, so that’s a really good sign, and I just want to keep it going.”
The No. 2 seed, seeking a first US Open crown since 2008, shrugged off four break points in a tight first set before storming to a 6-4, 6-1, 7-5 victory over Kyrgios.
A stunning around-the-netpost shot in the middle of the third set was the highlight from Federer on Arthur Ashe stadium on Saturday, and it left Kyrgios in absolute awe.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) September 1, 2018
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) September 1, 2018
“I was trying to tell him that the shot wasn’t that good (smiling). No, it was almost unreal. Almost got to the point where I wanted him to start making shots like that, and I finally got it. I was pretty happy with myself,” said Kyrgios.
“Tt was unbelievable. I’m probably going to place it on Instagram.”
Kyrgios was arguably the better player in the opening set but losing it made things tougher for the 23-year-old to keep up his level, and Federer was clutch when he needed to be.
The No. 30 seed rushed the net 30 times but was only successful on 14 occasions as Federer cleanly executed one passing shot after the other.
Federer out-aced Kyrgios, slamming 16 to the Aussie’s 13 and hit 51 winners in total against just 24 unforced errors.
Kyrgios was overheard saying “I need to hire a coach” during the match, but during his press conference he denied saying that. He has been coach-less for years and was asked if he thinks hiring one would help his career overall.
“Maybe. I think more of my tennis is more to do with the mental side of things rather than technique or, you know, tactics or anything like that. You know, we’ll see. Maybe,” he said.
“I get told a lot, ‘What do you want from your career?’ I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied with my career. I think there is a lot more to be done and there is a lot more to be, I mean, explored.
“In my career, I don’t think I have — I have been around for about four years now. I have barely done anything. I think I can do a lot more. As I said, it’s all mental with me, I think. If I want it enough, you know, I have a coaching option, psychology option.
“I think there is a lot more things to explore. But, I mean, obviously I want to achieve more in the sport. I don’t think I have done anything.”
Meanwhile, Federer was pleased with how focused he remained throughout the match but he did notice when Kyrgios started imitating his service motion — something the Canberra-native tends to do from time to time.
“Well, doesn’t matter if it’s a Grand Slam match or a first round of any other 250 tournament or any place. We have all imitated serves. Sure, it’s unusual to happen against you with your own serve,” said Federer.
“Yes, of course, I knew right away when he imitates my serve, and I have seen him doing it several times over the last few months. Also that he’s been using my serve sometimes to great effect, which I’m very happy to see. It’s a technique that worked (laughs). No, I’m joking.
“It’s good fun. Look, I take it like just as it is. I think in Stuttgart, maybe or some other place, he warmed up against me only hitting my serves. I know it’s about warming up the shoulder. Other guys probably use their own technique. Other guys probably use it differently. It’s all good.”
The 20-time Grand Slam champion takes on another Australian in round four, John Millman, who defeated Mikhail Kukushkin in four sets on Saturday.
Malek Jaziri made an honest and revealing confession after his opening round defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta earlier this week at the US Open.
“I need help,” admitted the 34-year-old Tunisian. “That’s the truth. I’ll be honest, I need help. Everyone needs help, whoever tells you they don’t… [is lying].”
After a career-best three-month stretch earlier this season that saw Jaziri get his first two top-10 wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic, reach the Dubai semi-finals and his maiden ATP final in Istanbul, win a Challenge in China and make the French Open second round, the Tunisian has admittedly struggled.
He has won just three of the 13 matches he has contested post-clay season and concedes that mentally things have been rough.
“I’m really playing very well in practice, but I’m not feeling very comfortable during matches,” the world No. 69 told Sport360.
“When you lose a few matches it’s not that easy. The hand is a little bit tight, the serve, when you need the point, it doesn’t come. Physically I think I’m okay, it’s a little bit in the mind and I have to work on that.
“The most important progress to be made is in my mind. If I want to play more, and if I want to play more at a high level, if I want to be top-50 or top-30, I have to improve my mentality.”
The top-ranked Arab added: “This is a really tough sport, to be consistent and to be motivated every day. That’s why I have a lot of respect for players like Rafa [Nadal], all these guys. It’s not easy at all, when you go on court and fight every day like that and your motivation is always high and you want more and more and more, it’s not easy at all.
“Sometimes the body doesn’t want, sometimes mentally, the body doesn’t follow the mind, the mind doesn’t follow the body… all these things come together and sometimes make you a better player.”
Jaziri is open to working with a mental coach because he knows it’s the only way forward.
He has had a few positive days since his loss to Carreno Busta, winning two matches alongside Radu Albot in the US Open doubles draw, including a huge upset over sixth-seeded pair Jean Julien-Rojer and Horia Tecau.
They face the Harrison brothers next.
Still, Jaziri knows he has much to think about. He believes he needs to be more meticulous with his schedule moving forward, as he tries to analyse why he managed to do well at the start of the season and why he’s unable to find that form now.
“I was fresh physically, fresh mentally. I got tired after the clay season. I put myself in this situation as well, played s-Hertogenbosch, maybe I made a mistake with my planning,” he says.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have played a tournament right away. I should’ve rested so I can come back with more motivation. I have to think about my schedule more carefully because if I want to be more for the next few years, managing my schedule will be key.
“Playing less with better quality. In the past I’ve made a lot of mistakes, today I’m still making mistakes, but less. But without mistakes you cannot learn and you cannot improve. Hopefully I don’t repeat these mistakes.”
The good thing is that Jaziri knows he is capable of stepping up. He rose to 47 in the world a year and a half ago and as a late bloomer, he is aware he can always improve, even at 34.
“It’s not like I’m not strong mentally or something, I’ve shown it in the past that I can beat good players, but consistently, mentally, how to find the motivation in every match, how to find the motivation to work more, to exceed yourself. And staying at it when it’s not coming. That’s not easy,” he explains.
“The attitude is the most important thing. I’m working on it but it’s not easy at all. You can speak now, but when you step on court it’s a different story. I want to win for sure these matches, but it’s hard being consistent with your effort and that comes from the mental side.”
The ever-smiling Jaziri has a plan though.
“Keep working, keep playing, keep enjoying. Keep working on the things you have to work on, specifically,” he says.