NEW YORK — After a win advanced her to a first major semifinal, Japan’s Naomi Osaka made sure to point out that the reception to her success in the Far East would not compare to that of the person who was out on the court at the moment she uttered those words – a person trying to duplicate Osaka’s accomplishment on the same afternoon.
Whoever gets more plaudits in Japan continues to be a secondary issue, however, as Osaka and Kei Nishikori continued historic runs in the singles draws of the 2018 US Open as both won their matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium to advance to the final four in New York, marking the first time a Japanese man and woman have made the semifinals in singles in the same major tournament. Osaka, born in Japan before moving to New York at age three and then Florida when she was eight, and Nishikori, who grew up in Japan before moving to Florida at age 14, only got a chance to get to know each other more in-depth during their time in New York last week.
In four days, they both could meet up at the top of the Empire State Building for the traditional champions photo shoot, trophies in tow.
So what was Osaka’s first impression of the man who might very well be considered Japan’s biggest sports star?
“Well, he’s really nice. He’s probably one of the nicest people I have ever met,” said Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. “We recently started talking. I think it’s because I was too shy to talk to him before this tournament. But then I started talking to him, and I think he was surprised about me talking to him. So, yeah, he’s really cool.”
Osaka was also quick to point out that, when it comes to popularity in Japan as it pertains to tennis, she can not hold a candle to the former 2014 US Open finalist.
“I’m really grateful that I get a lot of Japanese press,” Osaka said. “I think it’s because of Kei. I’m really happy about that. I just hope that I can keep doing well. I hope that they keep cheering for me.”
Could it really be just because of Kei, even with her success during this fortnight?
“Like Kei…,” Osaka said, as she held out her hands wide indicating how big she thinks Nishikori is in popularity.
The shyness and humility that carried over in first talking to Nishikori, as well as her reserved nature in speaking softly with members of the media, is far from present when she is out on the court, with one of the more powerful serves in the women’s game helping her mow through her first five matches with just one set dropped. Osaka’s ascent to the top 20 of the WTA rankings this year was highlighted when she won her first WTA title in one of the Premier tournaments on the schedule in Indian Wells in March. After that win, everyone noticed the potential she had in possibly cracking into the upper echelon of the sport.
“Well, yeah, it’s great to see. She’s doing well, because she has, you know, she has won a Masters,” Nishikori said after his quarterfinal win against Marin Cilic. “I think she can, you know, win a title now, even though [it’s a] Grand Slam. So I feel, you know, a big chance for her.”
All of Nishikori’s three semifinals appearances in Grand Slams have come in New York City, a place he surely missed in 2017 as he rehabbed from a wrist injury which caused his withdrawal from participating in the Open last year.
“[I’m] also happy for myself, too, you know, being injured last year,” Nishikori said. “You know, I couldn’t play this tournament last year. Happy to coming back, semis, and, yeah, always play good here. So I hope I can keep going.”
A nation of over 126 million people, one that mostly gets its sports fix from baseball and sumo wrestling, hope that both Osaka and Nishikori continue to go forward and make more history, as most of the population stayed up from 1 AM local time, for the start of the Osaka match, to 6:58 AM local time, the end of Nishikori’s 2014 US Open Final rematch with Cilic.
“I hope people [in Japan] were watching us today. Yeah, hopefully many people cheering in support for us,” Nishikori said. “And even here we saw, or I saw a lot of Japanese coming up for the tournament. It’s good to have, you know, home support outside of Japan. Yeah, it’s great news we both in semis. Yeah, hopefully we do well this week.”
They have done weel, not only with their tennis play but with getting to finally know each other – and discovering that, despite being eight years apart, both are real young at heart.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble if I say this, though. Like, I just think he’s, like, a really big kid,” Osaka said of Nishikori. “Like, I don’t know how to describe it. Like, he plays games and stuff, too. I think we’re pretty similar in that sense. Overall, he’s just really nice and positive and bubbly and stuff.”
“Well, she looks mature and she looks older, but when we talk, she’s also kid,” Nishikori said with a smile about Osaka.
They may be just a couple of big kids, but their games may end up being bigger than anything else in one of the most populous countries in the world if either wins a first major singles title in just a matter of days.