A relatable Naomi Osaka made reaching the US Open semifinals look easy

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NEW YORK—Naomi Osaka was asked why she didn’t show more emotion after her 58-minute, 6-1, 6-1 win over Lesia Tsurenko in the US Open quarterfinals on Wednesday. The obvious answer might have been that any win that came so easily didn’t really deserve an over-the-top celebration. But Osaka’s answers are rarely the obvious ones.

“The other time I cried a little bit,” she told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi of her tearful reaction to her fourth-round win, “and people were making fun of me.” This time she didn’t want to reveal so much.

The crowd in Ashe Stadium wasn’t sure how to react; the quiet in the arena was broken by a few hesitant cheers, as Rinaldi moved on. Osaka didn’t seem to be milking the moment for sympathy. She was, as usual, just saying what she thought, with a dose of her trademark ironic self-deprecation. Osaka had sounded the same comically melancholy note earlier in the tournament, when she talked about her near total lack of friends.

“Oh my God, I literally only have like, one friend that I’m actually completely like, myself, with,” Osaka said. “I feel bad for her sometimes...”

Still, even Naomi Osaka might have trouble being self-deprecating at the moment. So far, the 20-year-old has spent most of this US Open living in her own personal woodshed. In four of her wins, she has surrendered a total of nine games. And in her other win, she beat a player, Aryna Sabalenka, who had made quick work of Petra Kvitova in the previous round, and who many were touting as the favorite to win the whole thing here.

Has Osaka’s first trip to a Grand Slam semifinal come a little too easily? Maybe. None of her opponents are in the Top 10, and the best of them, Sabalenka, was a US Open rookie. Today Tsurenko, who said she woke up with a viral illness, offered virtually no resistance at all. But that’s the thing about building confidence and starting to believe in yourself at major events: Sometimes a young player needs a little luck to accelerate the process. And it’s not as if Osaka hasn’t proven herself against quality competition this year. In Indian Wells in March, she beat Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep, and Karolina Pliskova on her way to the title.

At Flushing Meadows, Osaka has continued to show the same progress she showed in the spring. A risk-taker by instinct, she has developed a safe rally shot, with help from coach Sascha Bajin, and she’s beginning to develop the patience and footwork needed to make it effective. That may sound like an obvious and easy thing for a professional athlete to do, but the examples of players who managed to do it after their careers had begun are few and far between. Going against your instincts isn’t easy, as Osaka explained when she was asked about the “fights she gets in with herself on court.”

“For example, it happened not this match, the match before,” Osaka said, describing her decision-making process after an opponent hits a second serve. “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’s another part of me that’s like, ‘But if I hit this down the line, there’s a 50/50 chance it will be a winner and you could win the point easily. And then when she’s serving the ball, 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?’”

“Yeah, basically that happens a lot.”

I’m guessing there are more than a few tennis players who have had that conversation with themselves on many occasions. On the surface, Osaka’s comments—about her fear of being laughed at, about how she drives her one friend crazy, about her indecisiveness on the court—may seem a little shocking, or a little exaggerated for effect. But their unguardedness is what makes them relatable—to a certain type of personality, they don’t sound exaggerated at all.

Can someone with Osaka’s sensitivities succeed at the top level in tennis? So far in New York, she’s making it look easy. Soon she may face her biggest challenge yet: How to make winning a Grand Slam title sound embarrassing.

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