US Open 2019

'Home' comforts for Naomi Osaka

Japan's Naomi Osaka has been playing more and playing longer, and feels things are looking good for her ar Flushing Meadows.
Japan's Naomi Osaka has been playing more and playing longer, and feels things are looking good for her at Flushing Meadows.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cori Gauff, 15, United States
Cori Gauff, 15, United States
Madison Keys, 24, United States
Madison Keys, 24, United States
Simona Halep, 27, Romania
Simona Halep, 27, Romania

Defending champion back in familiar territory after tough run since last year

NEW YORK • For Naomi Osaka, everything feels better when she is back among the familiar surroundings of Flushing Meadows.

The knee injury that forced her to retire during her last match, in the quarter-finals at Cincinnati, no longer feels as painful.

The disappointment with her tennis, that led her to say she was not having fun since adding the Australian Open to her US Open title, has been replaced by calmness.

"It's getting better. I've been playing more, longer every day," she said. "Luckily I'm a fast healer, so I think it's looking good."

When she returns to the hard courts of New York, after a whirlwind 50-week roller-coaster ride since her crowning in New York last year, she is a champion. And in many ways, she is home.

"Yeah, I mean, I feel like I have a familiarity," Osaka said on Friday. "That's not because I won last year. It's because I have been kind of hitting on these courts since I was a kid. I used to train here."

For the Japan native, who moved to New York as a three-year-old, all that training paid off last year when she beat Serena Williams in the final for her first Grand Slam title.

It was a battle of emotions, the thrill of victory mixed with sadness of watching Williams' meltdown after chair umpire Carlos Ramos had given her a warning for receiving coaching. Ramos will not officiate any matches involving Serena or Venus this time, said the United States Tennis Association.

Top seed Osaka has put that night behind her. Besides, she has had plenty of tougher times since.

After her double major success, she lost in the third round at the French Open and was knocked out in the first round at Wimbledon, taking a month off before starting her hard-court season in Toronto.

Things have since changed for Japan's first Slam winner.

"I'm not sure if it's because the last couple of months have been kind of turbulent, but definitely I feel really comfortable and I know that, despite everything, I play well here every year," she said. "So I'm not too worried about that."

Williams will also be afforded the spotlight, as her continued pursuit of history begins with a night match against Maria Sharapova.

The American, 37, will make her latest attempt at capturing her 24th Slam singles title to match Margaret Court. She has not won a major since the 2017 Australian Open when she was pregnant. She was runner-up at Wimbledon to Simona Halep last month and Angelique Kerber the year before.

The eighth seed could meet French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, the second seed from Australia, in the quarter-finals.

Halep and Czech third seed Karolina Pliskova, seeking her Slam breakthrough, are among others trying to deny Williams in a quest she insists does not dominate her thoughts.

Williams said earlier this month: "It's definitely meaningful but, at this point in my career, I just try to think of different things and even bigger goals.

"So it's just like 24 is just a thing. There are so much more important things in my life..."

While it looks to be a three-man race between Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the women's side is a relative toss-up.

Said former No. 1 Chris Evert: "There are probably eight to 10 women who could win. Women's tennis is not dominated by anybody. The depth of the game, you have to admire and celebrate it."

When pressed, she tipped a healthy Williams to "beat everybody" for her seventh US Open, adding: "She's going to get that 24 somehow. I really have faith in her."

ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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CORI GAUFF, 15, UNITED STATES

World ranking: 142

Best Slam result: Fourth round (Wimbledon, 2019)

Best US Open result: Qualifying, 2018

The teenager took the tennis world by storm when, as a qualifier ranked 313th in the world, she beat five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon.

Her heroics did not stop there, as she also saved two match points against Polona Hercog to reach the last 16. That sensational run earned her a main draw wild card for New York, where she will be eager to make a similar run.

MADISON KEYS, 24, UNITED STATES

World ranking: 10

Best Slam result: Final (US Open, 2017)

Best US Open result: 2017

The American and her powerful forehand seem to be best suited for the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, where she reached the final in 2017 and the semi-final last year.

Fresh off winning the Cincinnati Masters two weeks ago, her biggest career victory, she is building up a run of form into the year's final Grand Slam.

SIMONA HALEP, 27, ROMANIA

World ranking: 4

Best Slam: Winner (Wimbledon, 2019; French Open, 2018)

Best US Open result: Semi-final, 2015

After destroying Serena Williams in July's Wimbledon final, the Romanian proved her adeptness on grass as well as clay, the surface on which she won her first Grand Slam at last year's French Open.

The former world No. 1 will hope to carry that confidence into the US Open, where she cannot perform worse than her last two appearances which ended in first-round defeats.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2019, with the headline ''Home' comforts for Osaka'. Print Edition | Subscribe