Besides her sensational rise up the world rankings, Naomi Osaka has established herself as one of the most sought after players in the world of tennis.
Her introverted personality and down to earth comments are ones that intrigue many. 12 months ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, she made headlines with what she described as ‘the worst acceptance speech of all time.’ Whist she may not have loved it, many others did. The words following her triumph at the tournament where she defeated Daria Kasatkina to win her maiden WTA title at the age of 20. Becoming the first Asian player – man or woman – to do so.
“I was just here to have fun, maybe make it to the quarters,” the tournament website quotes Osaka as saying about her run to the title. “It sounds bad saying it, but it’s true, because I had never really gone that far in a tournament like this. I just kept playing great players in every round and I was just, like, ‘I’m here for a good time,’ you know? But then I kept winning. I thought, ‘Whoa, maybe I can actually win this tournament.’ I did.”
That run was the start of Osaka’s rapid rise as she went on to win both the US Open and Australian Open titles. Within a year, she had risen from 72nd to world No.1 at the age of 21. A performance that saw her win the Laureus Breakthrough of the Year award in February.
Whilst still adjusting to her newfound fame, Osaka knows she will be under pressure in Indian Wells this year. Not only is she defending a WTA title for the first time, her No.1 spot is also under threat. Heading into the draw, five players have the chance of finishing the tournament in top spot. Not that Osaka is fazed by it all.
“All the people around me are super supportive,” Osaka told reporters on Thursday. “They’re not talking about ‘title defense’. We just want to keep moving forward. It’s not about defending, it’s about getting another one. That’s how our minds are and how it might be different than other people.”
The Jenkins era
Had a great dinner with the team ❤️ also taking this moment to thank Jermaine for joining us and coming on board lol 😊🙌 pic.twitter.com/OBpl5R7L2j
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) February 28, 2019
Guiding Osaka on the tour is recently appointed coach Jermaine Jenkins. A national coach for the USTA, who previously worked as a hitting partner for Venus Williams. Speaking about their collaboration, she describes him as her ‘strict older brother’ whilst speaking with Japanese media.
“I feel like I’m getting stronger, and when you get stronger you get better,” she explained. “At the same time, it’s really fun to practice with him because he’s strict, but he’s not afraid to make jokes.”
“He’s like a strict older brother who wants the best for you, but he’s kind of mean about it, but at the same time he cares about you.”
The first test in Indian Wells comes in the shape of France’s Kristina Mladenovic. A player who defeated Osaka in Dubai last month. Mladenovic set up the clash following a straight sets win over China’s Zheng Saisai.
“It’s going to be a brand new match. The conditions are completely the opposite to what they were in Dubai: different balls, different surface. I’m sure her game suits well here as the defending champion, and I’m sure she wants to build on some wins again. I’m going to go out there confident, show a fight, and execute as well as I did a few weeks ago.” The Frenchwoman commented after her win.
A Barbie girl in a tennis world
Osaka’s impact hasn’t just been on the court. She has become the latest athlete to have their own Barbie doll. The ‘Shero’ collection features female figures who have made significant achievements in the world. To mark Barbie’s 60th anniversary this year, 20 new role models have been made. Including one of the two-time grand slam champion Osaka.
“Having that chance to represent people that might not think that they could be represented, that’s a really important goal of mine,” said Osaka.
“It’s a little bit surreal because last year nothing like that would have come my way but this year I have opportunities like that,” she added.
Besides Osaka, other women to be included in the collection are body activist Ashley Graham, film director Ava Duvernay, and supermodel/activist Adwoa Aboah.
Osaka will kick-off her Indian Wells campaign against Mladenovic on Saturday.
Osaka’s results on the tour since winning Indian Wells
Miami – Round 2
Charleston – Round 3
Madrid – Round 1
Rome – Round 2
French Open – Round 3
Nottingham – semi-finals
Birmingham – Round 2
Wimbledon – Round 3
Washington – Round 2
Montreal – Round 1
Cincinnati – Round 1
US Open – Champion
Tokyo – Runner-up
Beijing – Semi-finals
WTA Finals – Round-Robin
Brisbane – Semi-finals
Australian Open – Champion
Dubai – Round 2
Indian Wells – ?
Pliskova And Konta Advance To Rome Final
Johanna Konta edged world n.4 Kiki Bertens while Karolina Pliskova scored a straight-set victory against Maria Sakkari
After a washout on Wednesday and a double duty day on Thursday, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia were bracing for another wet afternoon on Saturday. Eventually, the very cold spell of Italian spring that has so far marred the 2019 Italian Open decided to spare the Foro Italico on the first day of the final weekend and allowed the two women’s singles semifinals to take place with only one very short interruption.
In the first match, 28-year-old Brit Johanna Konta came back from one set down and only two points away from defeat to overcome Mutua Madrid Open champion and world n.4 Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2. The Dutch woman seemed to be in control of the match after she swooped the first set winning the last three games in a row (from 4-5 to 7-5) imposing her offensive and defensive game over a nervous and tentative Konta, who also failed to consolidate an initial break in the second set by losing her serve for the third time in a row. However, as the match progressed Konta started shaking off her initial jitters and held her subsequent service game with authority. At 4-5 30-30, a shanked smash pinched the line and the following forehand volley winner sealed the 5-5, signing a progressive decline in Berten’s sharpness and aggressiveness. “I think everything was hard today to ignore – said Bertens in the post-match press conference – the court was really slippery, so it’s tough to move on. Especially I like it when it’s not so slippery so I can move a little bit better. With the wind, it was really tough. She played really smart with the dropshots. She did a good job in there. I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But, yeah, it was not there”.
At her first final on clay and at her first final in a Premier Five/Premier Mandatory tournament after her triumph in Miami in 2017, Konta describer her effort on court as a “continuous adjustment, a continuous openness to figure it out within the match. I stayed very open in trying to find a solution in each point […] after I lost the first set, I didn’t do much wrong. It was a very good set of tennis. Equally the second set, as well. There wasn’t anybody putting a bad foot out of line. In the third, I definitely felt that I was able to maintain my level a bit better than her. I think that gave me the upper hand in stringing some more points together”.
Konta will face in the final n.4 seed Karolina Pliskova, who during the late afternoon match defeated Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-4. Sakkari started the match extremely well taking an early 4-2 lead, but could not continue to produce the same level of tennis in the second part of the set and was surpassed by her better ranked opponent. “Your intensity just dropped by one percent – said Sakkari’s coach Tom Hill during an on-court coaching session at the end of the first set – that’s the only difference between the first games and the last in this first set”.
During the second set, Pliskova was always ahead in the score, and despite she was the player more under pressure on her serve during the first half of the set, she eventually managed to break her opponent to love on 5-4 closing the match after one hour, 27 minutes. “I’m super happy for this result because I don’t feel I have been playing my best tennis – said Pliskova after the match – coming into this week I felt I would probably win one match, possibly two, I’m very confident for Paris now”.
The head-to-head between Pliskova and Konta see the Czech having won four of the previous five matches at WTA level, plus further two at ITF level. The only win for Konta came in Beijing in 2016, when the Brit reached her first Premier Mandatory final.
Johanna Konta Reaches Biggest Semi-Final Since 2017
Johanna Konta advanced to her first semi-final in Rome by beating Vondrousova in three sets, while Pliskova beat Azarenka.
Johanna Konta will contest the biggest match of her career since Wimbledon 2017 when she takes on Kiki Bertens in the semi-final of the Italian Open.
The Brit, who is celebrating her 28th birthday today, looked in excellent form during her 6-3 3-6 6-1 victory over rising star Marketa Vondrousova and she fully deserves her place in the last four.
Konta’s win seems even more impressive when you consider the two players the Czech, 19, beat to reach the quarter-final stage: Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina.
With those scalps under her belt, Vondrousova would surely have fancied her chances against the Brit. However, that confidence quickly eroded after the World No.42 controlled the opening set.
Konta made a great start. She hit a series of deep backhands which pushed the Czech back as she almost got an immediate break.
Although Vondrousova held on, the Brit then earned three more chances in game three. She took the second to move into a 2-1 lead.
Konta dominated her service games to maintain her advantage for the rest of the set, and then broke the Czech again in game nine to clinch it.
To Vondrousova’s credit, she fought back well in the second set and eventually won it 6-3. However, the Brit knew what to do in the decider. She stepped into the court and attacked anything short. This enabled her to win six games in a row and seal her spot in the semi-final.
Azarenka’s impressive run comes to an end
It has been a brilliant week in Rome for Victoria Azarenka, but her participation in the singles event is now over after a 6-7(5) 6-2 6-2 loss to Karolina Pliskova.
The Belarussian, 29, impressed during her three-set win over another top ten player – Elina Svitolina – in the second round, but she could not repeat the feat against the World No.7.
For Pliskova, the match against Azarenka represented a significant hurdle to negotiate. But she responded superbly to losing the first set by raising her game considerably to win the next two.
“Azarenka was playing good tennis today. She wasn’t missing much,” the Czech said in her press conference.
She continued, “It was a little bit windy, so I didn’t feel at my best in the first set. I don’t think my level was that bad, but I was too passive. To begin with, I wanted to kill myself after that set. Then I calmed down a bit and went for my shots a little bit more, which paid off.”
Pliskova’s reward will be a semi-final against either Maria Sakkari or Kristina Mladenovic. If it is the Greek, it will bring back memories of their encounter last year when the Czech famously lost her temper and damaged the umpire’s chair.
“I haven’t played Sakkari since Rome last year, so I think everybody is going to be waiting for this match – even me,” the World No.7 said. “The rematch has almost happened in a couple of tournaments recently, but she always lost before. I think she was scared to face me!”
Kiki Bertens receives a walkover into the semifinal, as Naomi Osaka withdraws from the quarter final due to a right hand injury
Last week’s Madrid Mutua Open champion Kiki Bertens overcame 2015 Rome finalist Carla Suarez Navarro 6-4 1-6 6-3 after 1 hour and 49 minutes to extend her winning streak to eight consecutive matches.
A rain wash-out on Wednesday forced Bertens to postpone her Rome campaign until Thursday and play two matches to advance to the quarter final.
Bertens overcame Amanda Anisimova 6-2 4-6 7-5 after being just two points from defeat in her first Thursday match before surviving another three-set battle against Carla Suarez Navarro.
Bertens went up a double break to take a 3-0 lead and held on her service games to seal the opening set on her fourth set point.
Suarez Navarro broke serve twice to clinch the second set 6-1 forcing the match to the third set.
Bertens broke twice in a row to race out to a 4-0 lead in the decisive set. Suarez Navarro pulled one of the two breaks back. Bertens held on her next service games to seal the win to secure her spot in the quarter final.
“It was only fight today that got me through. It wasn’t the best tennis, but sometimes that happens where you just have to find a way. Luckily I found it. I got to hit yesterday morning because I was first on, so at 9 AM, I warmed up until 9.30, when I thought that maybe we will be able to go on court, but it did not happen. I was on site from 8 AM to 6 PM, so it was a long day, but for everyone. This morning I saw the schedule for 10 AM, so the alarm went off at 6.30. Not my best morning. After the first match, I felt more mentally fatigued, but a long second match, you feel it physically”, said Bertens.
The Dutch player has received a walkover into the semifinal after her quarter final rival Naomi Osaka was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to a right hand injury. Osaka also had to pull out of the Stuttgart Open because of an abdominal problem, but she reached the biggest clay quarter final of her career in Madrid, where she served for the match, but she lost to Belinda Bencic 3-6 6-2 7-5.
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