NEW YORK—You don’t expect a Grand Slam semifinal to be decided in the fourth game of the match. But there it was, Naomi Osaka serving to Madison Keys at 1-2, love-40. And there it went, Osaka winning three straight points, the third the result of Keys missing a backhand return off a 76-m.p.h. second serve. Osaka erased another break point and soon leveled the match at 2-all. Keys would call it “a sloppy game.”
But it also proved the pivotal moment in Osaka’s 6-2, 6-4 win. Breaking Keys in the next game, Osaka grabbed hold of the match, showing a troika of power, precision and, most of all, poise.
Turning point two came in the second set. With Osaka serving at 1-0, Keys held six break points. Each time, Osaka had the answer, even once striking a second-serve ace. All told this evening, Osaka would face 13 break points—and win every one of them.
“It was really impressive,” said Keys. “For a first-time semifinalist on a big stage and all that, it was really impressive she held her nerve the entire time, never really had any kind of slipup.”
These were precisely the words to describe what had happened to Keys here a year ago, when she’d lost the final to Sloane Stephens.
Said Keys, “I think if she plays like she did tonight, she can definitely give Serena a run for her money. It will be a really good match. I’m for sure going to watch it.”
Though Osaka beat Williams earlier this year in Miami, the stakes this time are much higher. Then again, Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin (a former Williams hitting partner), believes such an occasion will bring out the best in her.
Said Bajin, “I believe that Naomi is one of those individuals who really craves the big stage, so that definitely helps her competing out there and helps my part to, you know, not take it too easy on her and that she has to calm down. She always plays better on the big stages than she does on any of the other courts.”
WATCH—Court Report from Day 11 at the US Open:
But while Osaka had made a big splash earlier this year in winning Indian Wells, tennis since that victory hadn’t gone too well. After Wimbledon, Osaka’s match record had been 1-3, including three straight losses leading into the US Open. Tranquil as she can be in the heat of battle, those summer defeats were quite demoralizing.
Following that third loss, said Osaka, “I was in the locker room and I was just crying because I thought, Wow, I'm really bad at tennis.”
Everything changed once she arrived in New York.
Said Osaka, “Then I came here and I was just thinking, I'm going to have fun and fight for every point that I can. I'll still here, so 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.
Saturday afternoon, Osaka will play a match she has dreamed of since her childhood: a Grand Slam final versus her idol, Serena Williams. Asked how those youthful dreams of a match with Serena would turn out, Osaka spoke with what’s emerging as a trademark mix of soft-spoken but emphatic candor, humor—and ambition.
“You already know,” she said with a smile. “You’re just asking me. I don’t dream to lose, so…that’s how I’m answering your question.”