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Osaka rallies past Bencic to reach Miami Open final

Naomi Osaka cried tears of joy after reaching the Miami Open final for the first time before her mind turned towards something else.

The Japanese star has ridden an emotional rollercoaster recently and after a heckler deeply upset her in Indian Wells, on Thursday night in south Florida Osaka couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

A 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Olympic champion Belinda Bencic took the four time Grand Slam champion into Saturday’s final where she will meet the in-form, new world number Iga Swiatek — although picking up some dinner rather than lifting her first trophy since the 2021 Australian Open was occupying her thoughts more than anything.

“Unprofessional answer and professional answer, what I’m honestly thinking now is like how to get Korean food Uber Eats to my place, because there is nothing inside of the delivery range,” smiled Osaka, who was visibly emotional at the end of her win.

“But in terms of the match, I’m glad I was able to pull through.”

Osaka has been very open about her struggles with mental health which came to the fore last year at the French Open when she decided to leave the tournament after just one match and take some time away from tennis.

She sought help from a therapist in the aftermath of Indian Wells and the 24-year-old has cut a very relaxed and focused figure in Miami, enjoying life on and off the court, even though the Covid-19 pandemic has forced her to take solace in the shadows, at least for the time being. 

“If I hadn’t said anything at the French Open, I don’t think anyone would have known about the things I was going through,” said the quirky current world number 77.

“It’s not new to me,” she said of her mental issues. “People are saying to me ‘you’re back.’ But to be honest, I don’t think I ever left. I have always been this player.

“I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my thoughts, in this particular case, it’s because I haven’t been in the finals in a while, or I guess in a big tournament like this in a while.

“I was really nervous warming up.”

Definitely happiness

Osaka has a soft spot for south Florida. Her family moved there in 2006 so she could concentrate on her tennis. But she said she’s still reluctant to go out because of Covid.

“My worst nightmare would be to get to the final and then have to pull out because I’m sick so I tend to stay at home most of the time.”

Swiatek may come into the title match as a slight favorite, but anyone taking on the Japanese will have their hands full. She has only dropped one set – the opener against Bencic — and hit 18 aces against the Swiss.

Osaka, who had lost three of four prior meetings with Bencic, was wiping away tears after it was over.

“It wasn’t really relief at the end,” she said. “It was definitely happiness.”

Swiatek is certainly loving life, too, having won WTA 1000 events in Doha and Indian Wells this year, a run which has seen the 20 year-old reach the summit of the women’s game.

Her tussle with Osaka should be one to relish – they have met just once with the Polish star, who defeated Jessica Pegula 6-2, 7-5 in Thursday’s other semi-final, losing in Toronto in 2019.

“I remember playing Iga when she was first coming up, and my immediate thought was ‘Wow, this girl is really athletic,'” Osaka said.

“I think it’s really amazing to see how far she’s come. She’s just so motivated.”

by Steve Brenner

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