NEW YORK • Newly minted US Open finalist Naomi Osaka grew up on Long Island, New York, until she was nine, but tennis fans would not be able to tell that by simply watching her on the court.
The flag next to her name displayed on monitors throughout Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre is Japan's - her mother's homeland, the country of her birth and the country she represents in competition.
On her days off, though, she enjoys the city like any other native New Yorker. "Well, in the mornings, I don't play matches, I walk around and hear the lovely honking. I just like walking in the city... there's a lot of energy," she said.
The 20-year-old applied that same New York hustle to her play on Thursday, defeating last year's runner-up Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 to advance to her first career Grand Slam final and, in the process, becoming the first Japanese woman to do so.
Yet for Osaka, who won her first WTA Tour title in Indian Wells in March, her victory over the 14th-seeded Keys, an opponent she had never beaten in three previous meetings, is the latest milestone in a watershed year.
Her cause was also helped by a litany of unforced errors from Keys - 32 in total - as the American, who had dropped just a single set en route to the semi-finals, failed to conjure up that same form.
Keys acknowledged afterwards that she simply could not catch a break with Osaka so relentless.
HOMECOMING OF SORTS
New York is very nostalgic. I used to play here when I was a little kid, so these courts aren't new to me. It definitely means a lot, and I always thought if I were to win a Grand Slam, the first one I'd want to win is the US Open because I've grown up here, and then my grandparents can come and watch. It would be really cool.
NAOMI OSAKA, who grew up on Long Island, New York, till she was nine years old.
"Every time I had a break point, it was an ace or a winner or something like that (from Osaka)... All credit to her," the 23-year-old said.
Today's match-up represents the fulfilment of Osaka's childhood dream of facing Wimbledon runner-up Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final.
The contrast between the duo, who have met only once at Miami in March with Osaka triumphing in straight sets, cannot be more stark.
Williams will be playing in her 31st Grand Slam singles final and ninth at the US Open where she is a six-time champion. When the American, 16 years Osaka's senior, won her first US Open in 1999, the 20th seed was not yet two years old.
But whatever happens in the final, Osaka will always be a fan girl of the former world No. 1, who is chasing a record-equalling 24th Major, just a year after giving birth and undergoing four post-natal surgeries.
5 things about Osaka
• Despite living in America since she was three, Osaka decided to play tennis for Japan primarily because the country had more money to sponsor her.
• Sister Mari also plays tennis professionally and the duo have been dubbed the new Williams sisters on more than one occasion, most notably in the July edition of W Magazine.
• The first Japanese woman to reach the final of a Grand Slam, she could be just the second Asian to win a Slam after China's Li Na, who won the French and Australian Opens.
• A breakthrough year saw her win her first WTA title in March at Indian Wells.
• She is projected to rise to No. 12 and would breach the world's top 10 for the first time if she wins the final.
"It still feels a little bit, like, surreal. Even when I was a kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam," she said in her post-match interview.
"Just the fact that it's happening, I'm very happy about it... (but) I shouldn't really think of her as, like, my idol. When you just come back and then you make the finals of two Slams, that's really amazing."
The world No. 19 has kept this event business-like while navigating her way through the draw, but her latest triumph is not just about advancing her career. It is personal.
To win a title at Flushing Meadows, where she and her sister Mari grew up learning tennis in a household with her Haitian father and eating her mother's Japanese food, would speak to every part of Osaka's multi-cultural experience.
"New York is very nostalgic. I used to play here when I was a little kid, so these courts aren't new to me," she added.
"It definitely means a lot, and I always thought if I were to win a Grand Slam, the first one I'd want to win is the US Open because I've grown up here, and then my grandparents can come and watch. It would be really cool."
While Osaka is considered hafu, or half-Japanese in her home country and is still learning the language, admitting that she understands far better than speaking it, she has the opportunity to become only the second Asian after retired Chinese star Li Na to win a Major.
And both the Japanese press and investors have also embraced Osaka, with daily Nikkan Sports calling her feat, " a step into uncharted territory for Japanese women in New York".
The bullish nature of Yonex, which is her racket manufacturer and whose share price has risen by more than 10 per cent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, has also been attributed to her historic run.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST
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