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At the U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka Looks Like the Next Best Player in the World

Naomi Osaka has one of the biggest forehands in tennis. She has a serve that can end points before they start. She has magnificent corkscrew hair, dyed blond at the ends, and a placid expression, which occasionally betrays sadness or twitches into a smile. She has an American accent, a Japanese mother, a Haitian father, a home in Florida. She plays for Japan. She has a soft voice and an impish sense of humor. She has a fearlessness about her, though she calls herself shy. She has the talent to become the No. 1 player in the world, and now it seems that she has the mind to do so, too.

The talent has been obvious for years. In 2016, Osaka faced Madison Keys in the third round of the U.S. Open. Keys was twenty-one and already a top-ten player. Osaka was eighteen, ranked eighty-first. But Osaka won a close second set, and then went up 5–1 in the third. She only needed to hold serve once to complete the upset. What followed was a total unravelling. Under pressure, her lack of footwork and her see-ball, hit-ball strategy were exposed. Keys, who had been erratic, cooly seized control. Osaka still had chances; when she missed an easy forehand volley that would have given her match point, she screamed in horror. In tears, she went on to lose the deciding tiebreaker.

On Thursday night, Keys and Osaka played again, this time in the semifinals. Osaka moved differently than she had two years ago—she took smaller, quicker steps. She also controlled her racquet differently. At one point, as she and Keys traded forehands, I spent some time ignoring the ball and simply tracing the movement of their racquet heads. Keys had a smooth, easy, powerful stroke, but Osaka moved her racquet more like a baton—swinging it high above her head, finishing comfortably above her shoulder, or sweeping it across her torso as she stayed low to drive it. A few months after the 2016 match against Keys, Osaka admitted to me that she had a tendency to play “blindly”—to hit the ball without too much regard for where she wanted it to go. Now she seemed to have the control of a conductor. And what was truly astonishing was how she handled pressure. Keys had thirteen break points. Thirteen. Osaka saved them all. In one long deuce game, she erased one by sending a second-serve ace down the T. It was something that you might see from Serena Williams.

She will face Williams in the final, in a match many tennis fans have been dreaming of. It’s the match that Osaka has been dreaming of, too. In March, fresh off a title at Indian Wells, she defeated Williams, 6–3, 6–2, in the first round of the Miami Open. The loss, in some sense, set the bar for Williams: it prompted her to reëvaluate where her game was and what it would take to return to the top.

After the match against Keys, Osaka was asked, on the court, how she managed to save so many break points. “This is going to sound really bad,” she said, “but I was thinking I really want to play Serena.” Most players don’t say that. A lot of players want to run the other way. But Osaka doesn’t merely want to beat her idol, she has said. She wants to challenge her at her best, to elicit that roaring, guttural “Come on!”

When asked if she had a message for Williams, she answered, “I love you?”

Athletes can transcend their sport for different reasons. They reflect and refract different aspects of the culture, and so reveal different ways of moving through the world.

Much has been made of Osaka’s mixed heritage and what it might mean for Japan. As she has become more successful, the Japanese public, and Japanese sponsors, have come to embrace her, but not always easily. She is frank about the fact that people don’t quite know what to make of her. She once told me that, when she first started playing for Japan, she “could see the shock on people’s faces.” When I asked how that made her feel, she said she found it “funny.”

Most players at Osaka’s level are skilled at reading from familiar scripts, but she seems to speak spontaneously. “Do you remember the last time you double-bagelled an opponent?” she was asked in a press conference this week. “It was you, in my dreams,” she replied.

Osaka has said that she fights with herself. At another press conference this week, she was asked what she meant by that. “I would say it’s, like—O.K., for example, it happened not this match, the match before,” she answered. “She hit a second serve, right? And in my mind, right before she hits the second serve, I’m thinking, Do not hit this down the line. Don’t go for it, right? And then there is another part of me that’s, like, But if I hit this down the line, there is a fifty-fifty chance it will be a winner and you could win the point easy. And then when she’s serving the ball, it’s, like, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, and I’m arguing with myself. Do it, don’t do it, do it, don’t do it. And then the ball comes and I hit it down the line and it goes in the net. I’m, like, Why did I do that?” Last year, she talked about how, during practice, she couldn’t get a mesothelioma ad out of her head.

She’s a little weird. She knows it. She opens a space for it. She makes it seem glorious.

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