By Steve Keating
NEWYORK (Reuters) – A U.S. Open that began by celebrating a 50th anniversary could end with Serena Williams snatching a record equalling 24th Grand Slam title but it may well be remembered as Naomi Osaka’s coming out party.
While the big names that fill the stands – Venus and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki – have slowly aged, the people who run and market women’s tennis have patiently waited for the arrival of a fresh young face with a compelling story, big serve and punishing groundstrokes.
Meet Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who ticks all those boxes and more.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, the charismatic Osaka has offered signs that she possesses all the talent and personality necessary to fill the void that will be left when the likes of the Williams sisters and Sharapova eventually retire.
The 20-year-old, who grew up in New York and Florida, has Flushing Meadows buzzing about her lethal skills and disarming charm.
Behind a display of brutal power usually associated with Serena Williams, Osaka steamrolled her way into her first Grand Slam semi-final with a 6-1 6-1 demolition of Lesia Tsurenko. The result made her the first Japanese woman to reach a major semi-final since Kimiko Date at Wimbledon in 1996.
“Osaka could be just the kind of star that tennis needs,” Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising told Reuters. “Cosmopolitan, appealing personality, cool mixed-race look, interesting background, charming on camera.
“She has the potential to grab a broad base of fans — and inspire young women — from America, Japan, the Caribbean, pretty much everywhere tennis is played.
“It’s extremely important for tennis to find and promote young stars.”
The most valuable commodity of any sport is the athlete who can connect with a new generation of fans renewing the life cycle of an ageing base.
Osaka could be that athlete but tennis has been fooled before.
Serena Williams and then head of the WTA Tour Stacey Allaster anointed Eugenie Bouchard as the next big thing in 2014 after the Canadian reached the semi-finals of both the Australian and French Opens and the Wimbledon final.
But Bouchard flamed out in spectacular style, never getting close to the potential predicted for her.
Tennis has produced a procession of young talented players from Eastern Europe who have racked up piles of titles but off court have been unable to move the needle.
While the U.S. Open semi-final will mark a Grand Slam high note, Osaka’s results indicate she is not a one-hit wonder.
This season she reached the fourth round at the Australian Open, won the elite hardcourt event at Indian Wells and the following week she took out Serena Williams in the first round at Miami. That run allowed her to shoot up the rankings and she arrived at Flushing Meadows as the 20th seed.
“I believe that Naomi is one of those individuals who really craves the big stage,” said her coach Sascha Bajin, who used to work with Serena Williams.
“She always plays better on the big stages than she does on any of the other courts.
“What I really love about Naomi is that she really preserved that innocence somehow.
“If she’s sad, she’s going show it. If she’s happy, she’s going to show it. There is no fake emotions.”
Part of the fascination with Osaka is that she combines a genuine innocence and shyness with the killer instincts of an assassin reflected in her ruthless 6-0 6-0 third round demolition of Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Following her fourth round win over Aryna Sabalenka, Osaka broke into tears of joy but after her quarter-final thrashing of Tsurenko, she remained stonefaced having been stung by people poking fun at her crying.
“I feel like every young person playing, they want to win Grand Slams and they want to be number one of course that’s my goal,” said Osaka, who will take on 14th seed Madison Keys for a place in Saturday’s final.
“But again, I’m not trying to put too much pressure on myself.
“I know I’m in a position that I can possibly do that but I want to really think that I’m grateful to be in the position that I am in the first place and I just want to take one point at a time.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)