Australian Open 2019

Tennis: Focus is on Naomi Osaka's 'one goal'

Japan's Naomi Osaka celebrating after defeating Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in their semi-final clash yesterday. The 21-year-old had 56 winners to the Czech's 20.
Japan's Naomi Osaka celebrating after defeating Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in their semi-final clash yesterday. The 21-year-old had 56 winners to the Czech's 20.PHOTO: REUTERS

Hard work in off-season pays off for Osaka, who aims to beat Kvitova to win 2nd Slam

MELBOURNE • For Naomi Osaka, Grand Slams are her "main goal" and such was her focus that she addressed the storm surrounding advertisements put out by her sponsor, Nissin Foods, only after her Australian Open semi-final.

The noodle company acknowledged "whitewashing" her in online advertisements, which depicted her as having pale skin and have since been pulled, before accepting they were "not sensitive enough".

Osaka certainly showed no signs her game had been thrown off by the controversy. If the 21-year-old, who later brushed it off as not "on purpose", had been annoyed by her anime portrayal, she took it out on Karolina Pliskova.

The big-serving Czech had been the bookmakers' favourite after her quarter-final win over Serena Williams, and led Osaka 2-1 in head-to-head meetings.

But her 10-match winning streak hit a wall as the Japanese hit winners at will from both her forehand and backhand, breaking the world No. 8's service game twice while not facing a single break point to canter through the first set.

The US Open champion had to endure a fightback in the second set, but converted her only break point opportunity in the decider, unlike the four wasted by her opponent, to triumph 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 yesterday.

After scorching the Rod Laver Arena with 56 winners, to Pliskova's 20, and 15 aces to burnish her reputation as one of the cleanest hitters of the ball in women's tennis, Osaka admitted later she was "kind of sad" over the closing of the roof due to the sweltering conditions.

She felt that, the extreme weather, which reached a reported 40 deg C, was ideal for her game and "it was my time to shine".

She said: "I expected (Pliskova's comeback) a little... I was expecting a really hard battle. I just told myself to regroup in the third set."

After becoming the first Japanese to reach the final two at Melbourne Park when she will face Petra Kvitova tomorrow, she told reporters that while it felt "a little bit unreal", it was the culmination of "the work that I put in during the off-season".

She added: "When you're little, you watch the Slams, the legendary matches here. There's only four of them a year, so of course I want to do the best that I can here."

She also acknowledged that while she had one eye on the world No. 1 spot, with the winner replacing Romanian Simona Halep, it was better she "focused on one goal" as "the ranking comes after that".

In her way of becoming the first Japanese to reach the sport's summit and just the 10th player to lift the New York-Melbourne double will be Kvitova, who is at the peak of her "second career".

While the two-time Wimbledon champion reached her third Slam final after a business-like 7-6 (7-2), 6-0 win over American Danielle Collins, it is her first since suffering career-threatening injuries after fighting off a knife-wielding burglar in December 2016.

Since returning to the WTA Tour after a five-month layoff, she has seven titles but success in the Majors remained elusive until now.

The world No. 6 said "it wasn't really easy to kind of deal with coming to the Slams and losing", so it felt "more sweet" after reaching her first hard-court Slam final.

The Czech, 28, revealed she had never lost faith, saying: "Not very many people believe I can do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level. (But) I really love playing finals. I love playing on the big stages."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2019, with the headline 'Focus is on her 'one goal''. Print Edition | Subscribe