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.”
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