NEW YORK • As the US Open swings into its final days with a chaotic mix of upsets and marathon matches for the game's stalwarts, Japan, a relative outsider, has emerged at the fore.
Known more by its passion for baseball and sumo wrestling than for producing elite tennis players, the country has its two best players blazing a trail at Flushing Meadows.
Naomi Osaka joined Kei Nishikori, a runner-up at the 2014 edition, in the semi-finals, giving Japan two players in the final four of a Grand Slam for the first time.
Osaka, the No. 20 seed, rolled past unseeded Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine 6-1, 6-1 in just 57 minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday.
The 21st-seeded Nishikori followed her on the same court, but took four times as long to prevail, upsetting No. 7 Marin Cilic of Croatia 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4, in a rematch of their 2014 final.
Osaka said that she is happy to share the spotlight with Nishikori, describing her compatriot as "a big kid" in a show of openness which is rapidly transforming her into the sport's new poster girl.
IN AWE OF FELLOW NO. 1
He's probably one of the nicest people I have ever met. We recently started talking. I think it's because I was too shy to talk to him before this tournament.
NAOMI OSAKA, on Kei Nishikori (above).
"He's probably one of the nicest people I have ever met. We recently started talking. I think it's because I was too shy to talk to him before this tournament," said the 20-year-old, whose next opponent is Madison Keys after the American beat Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain 6-4, 6-3.
"I don't know if I'm going to get in trouble if I say this... I just think he's, like, a really big kid.
"He plays games and stuff, too. I think we're pretty similar in that sense. Overall, he's just really nice and positive and bubbly and stuff."
Nishikori and Osaka had already made history this week by becoming the first Japanese players to make the last eight of the same Slam since Shuzo Matsuoka and Kimiko Date at Wimbledon in 1995.
Date was also the last woman from the country to get to the semi-finals of a Major - at the All England Club the following year - before Osaka was even born.
After beating Tsurenko, Osaka told the crowd that she was "freaked out" over making the last four.
"I cried a lot last time (after the last-16 win over Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka) and there were lots of people making fun of me. So this time I went straight to the net," she said.
US tennis legend Billie Jean King took to Twitter to get behind the WTA's newest star.
She tweeted: "@Naomi-Osaka-I'm terribly sorry you were teased for crying following your @usopen victory. Never, ever be afraid to be your authentic self. #champion."
For Osaka, it has been a breakthrough year, highlighted by her semi-final victory over world No. 1 Simona Halep at Indian Wells in March - her first WTA Tour title.
Until this US Open, Osaka's best showing at a Grand Slam tournament was reaching this year's Australian Open fourth round.
Osaka, who has a Haitian father and Japanese mother, has spent all of her adult life in the United States, in New York and Florida, with just a few years of her childhood in Japan.
When her coach Sascha Bajin first came across Osaka he thought she was "bit more of a diva because she didn't talk much".
"She doesn't really look at someone's eyes, but that's just because she was always so shy. She would just keep her head down a little bit, which is cute now. I feel bad for prejudging," he said.
Next up for Nishikori is world No. 7 Novak Djokovic, who defeated John Millman 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
"It's great to see," said Nishikori of Osaka. "I think she can win a title now, even a Grand Slam. I feel it is a big chance for her."
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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