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Naomi Osaka reaches first final since 2021 Australian Open after solving Bencic puzzle in Miami
“I've wanted to get back here for a long time but I couldn’t string together a lot of things," the four-time major winner said after rallying, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, on Thursday.
Published Apr 01, 2022
TC DESK: Osaka on her long-awaited return to a championship weekend
Nearly three weeks ago, on a Saturday night at the BNP Paribas Open, a heckler brought Naomi Osaka to tears. Today, in a Thursday afternoon semi at the Miami Open, Osaka beat Belinda Bencic, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Sitting on the bench afterwards, in the final of a tournament for the first time since the 2021 Australian Open, Osaka placed a towel over her face and began to cry.
“I feel like I’ve been fighting for a long time—not like physically fighting,” Osaka told Tennis Channel’s Prakash Amritraj following the match. “I've wanted to get back here for a long time but I couldn’t string together a lot of things. Now I feel like I’m in a really good place in my life. I want to know that, even when the times are tough, I can bounce back. I feel like I did that pretty well.”
Often when Osaka wins it’s a case of wire-to-wire dominance. But not always. Matchups, to my mind one of tennis’ greatest assets, made this pairing exceptionally alluring. Never mind that Osaka had won four majors while Bencic had never reached a Slam final. More notable was that this woman from Switzerland had won all three of their prior tour-level matches, most recently ending Osaka’s title defense in the fourth round of the 2019 US Open. Bencic’s ability to take the ball early and sharply direct it to various corners had frequently flummoxed Osaka, triggering poor footwork and ill-informed shot selection decisions.
“I think I prepare on these matches just for my game,” said Bencic. “I don't look at her too much, because I feel like my instincts are prepared and they are just there, you know, so I don't have to think too much. I think that's the biggest part, you know, of my anticipation. I feel like it's very instinctive and it's there.”
As the match got underway, Bencic’s mastery over Osaka continued. Having dropped her serve but once in her first 37 service games this tournament, Osaka was broken twice early, Bencic going up 4-1. Her timing was as exquisite as, we dare say, a Swiss watch. At her best, there is a crisply sculpted quality to Bencic’s game, everything from defense to offense conducted with martinet-like efficiency.
“She has really amazing service returns,” said Osaka, “so that immediately puts me in pressure and puts me in a very uncomfortable position that I don't really like. Then she's immediately aggressive from the first ball. But her ball isn't hard, if that makes sense. Like it's fast but it's not hard. So my footwork, I have to adjust it a lot, because there is literally no other player that plays like her. I found myself like kind of on my back foot most of the time, but I'm confused why I'm on my back foot because it's not hard.”
But Osaka hung in long enough to earn back one of those breaks. And though Bencic eventually served for the first set at 5-4, 40-love, only on her third set point did she close out the set.
From there, Bencic commenced a baffling and gradual meltdown. Two points into the second set, negativity surfaced—a yell, poor body language, a trace of anger at the wind. More notably, much to Osaka’s delight, Bencic transformed from hunter to hider. Everything from depth to variety dropped, Bencic hitting far fewer down-the-line backhands than she had in those early stages of the match. Said Bencic, “she started to serve better a little bit, and I felt like, maybe with the wind a little bit, I didn't go through my balls so much. They had just a little bit less on it.”
Seeing more openings to launch her offense, Osaka seized control. A Bencic double-fault at 2-3, 15-30—one of eight she’d hit this match—opened the door for Osaka to take charge of the second set and eventually win it, 6-3.
“To be honest, I didn't think I turned on a switch today,” said Osaka. “She was just playing really well. In the second set I just told myself, like, 'Listen, if she beats you, like someone is going to have to carry you off the court in a stretcher, because you're going to fight for everything.'”
Then came even stranger moments. Bencic fought back from a 1-all, 15-40 deficit to hold serve. Ditto for Osaka at 1-2, 15-40. Ditto for Bencic at 2-all, 15-40. Holding an ad to go up 3-2, Bencic was wide with a forehand—and again began to yell. As this occurred, it was perplexing to me how a player with as much court savvy as Bencic could begin to go dark. But she did, losing 11 straight points in the face of a superb series of Osaka returns, serves (18 aces) and grit. Serving now at 5-2, Osaka lost the next two games and at 5-4 played a superb game, holding at 15.
“I was really nervous in the third set—I was nervous the entire time,” said Osaka. “The third set serving for the match I was shaking the entire time because my body wasn’t used to it. I’m just constantly aware of how happy I am.”
“Definitely all credits to her,” said Bencic. “She was very good today, exceptionally on serve. Just as I said, I have nothing to be hard on myself too much, because, I had some good chances. I pushed her under pressure and today she pulled it off.”
Ranked 77th coming into Miami, Osaka is certain to crack the top 40 once it’s over. “I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to be No. 1 again, but I know it’s a process,” Osaka said. “We’re just living in the highlight right now, but there’s definitely going to be tough times throughout the year so it depends on how I handle that.” So far in Miami, Osaka’s managed her tennis better than she has in a long time.