It’s been a breakout season for Naomi Osaka, who stormed to the Indian Wells title then toppled her tennis idol, Serena Williams, in Miami.
Today, Osaka transformed the largest Grand Slam stage in the sport into the shake shack.
Shaking with stress walking onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka soothed the shivers riding a quaking serve into history.
In broiling conditions, the 20-year-old Osaka obliterated an out-of-sorts Lesia Tsurenko, 6-1, 6-1, becoming the first Japanese woman to reach the US Open semifinals.
“It means a lot,” Osaka told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi afterward. “I was freaking out inside [walking onto court]. Just like my entire body was shaking. So I’m really glad I was able to play well today.”
Launching this season with a run to the Australian Open round of 16, Osaka wil try to close Grand Slam season with a trip to her first major final. Osaka will face the winner of tonight’s quarterfinal between 2017 finalist Madison Keys and 30th-seeded Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro in tomorrow’s semifinals.
Two years ago, Osaka and Keys gave us a glimpse of Grand Slam future clashes when they met in the US Open third round.
In a match of explosive shotmaking, Keys roared back from a 1-5 deficit in the decider derailing the talented Osaka, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3) to advance to the US Open round of 16.
Playing with more maturity these days, Osaka is fitter and exhibiting sounder shot selection on court.
Tsurenko, who knocked off Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki en route to the quarterfinals, said she was suffering from a viral illness.
“Unfortunately during this tournament I had many issues with my health, and today was not my day obviously,” Tsurenko said. “I was not feeling well. I hate matches like this. I didn’t want to show this kind of game in front of this big crowd, but unfortunately I’m just not able to play now.”
Give Osaka an hour and she’ll give you history.
It took the explosive Osaka just 58 minutes to become the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since Kimiko Date Krumm made the final four at the 1996 Wimbledon.
While Date Krumm did it with flat strokes and a feisty return game, Osaka roared into the final fourth with a masterful serving performance and ball-control baseline attack.
Realizing she was facing a flagging opponent who lacked the energy to test her, Osaka did not overplay in hitting her way into history.
Shrewdly shifting her spins and targets, Osaka pumped five aces, won 20 of 22 first-serve points and denied all three break points she faced.
Born in Osaka, Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka holds dual Japanese and American citizenship. Her first Grand Slam experience came as a kid growing up in New York attending the US Open.
“I was born in Osaka. I came to New York when I was three,” Osaka said. “I moved from New York to Florida when I was, like, eight or nine, and then I have been training in Florida since.
“My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. And my mom is Japanese. I group up with the Japanese culture, too. If you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that, too.”
Years of training in the Florida heat prepared her for the New York humidity. Osaka didn’t shirk the swelter.
Instead, Osaka embraced the extreme heat and humidity. That sunny disposition helped her blaze through to her fourth straight-sets win in five Flushing Meadows matches.
“I actually don’t think it’s that hot,” Osaka said. “I don’t know. I think it’s because I’m used to Florida heat. I like sweating.”
There was no sweat bursting out to a 3-0 lead.
Serving from the shade, Osaka stamped a love hold for 4-1.
Pacing in slow steps between points, Tsurenko looked like a woman trudging through a thick thatch of hot vines. Each step looked labored. Tsurenko slapped a backhand into net surrendering serve in the sixth game.
Slashing another runaway serve, Osaka closed the 26-minute opener with a near-flawless serving performance.
The woman who grew up looking up to Serena threw down a damaging variety of serves winning 15 of 18 points played on her serve, including all eight of her first-serve points.
It seemed things couldn’t get any worse for Tsurenko.
It got worse.
Squandering a 40-love lead, the depleted Ukrainian dropped serve to start the second set and wiped away the sweat from her wise knocking her visor askew in the process.
On the opposite site of the net, Osaka was cruising as if driven by an internal GPS.
Rolling through a love hold she backed up the break.
A glum Tsurenko stopped a seven-game slide holding for 1-4 and walking slowly to her court-side seat. Tsurenko nearly tripled Osaka’s unforced error output (31 to 11) and never found a way to crack her opponent’s imposing serve.
“I think she played really good today,” Tsurenko said. “She didn’t give me any chance. She was serving well. She was really patient. I think she didn’t try to go for a winner immediately. So all the credits to her. She played really good. Her level was really high today.”
The only real speed bump on Osaka’s surge into the semifinals came when she denied three break points in a determined hold against a fading opponent.
A strained double fault into net put Tsurenko in a double match point hole. When Tsurenko bumped a backhand into net it was over.
Overwhelming during play, Osaka was subdued in victory.
There was no extensive celebration perhaps because she believes there’s more to come.
“I feel like every young person playing, they want to win Grand Slams and they want to be No. 1, so of course that’s my goal,” Osaka said. “But again, I’m not trying to put too much pressure on myself.
“I know I’m in a position that I can possibly do that, but I want to really think that I’m grateful to be in the position that I am in the first place, and I just want to take, like, one point at a time.”