Japan is having its best Grand Slam singles tennis performance in 23 years. The name everybody is learning, if they didn’t know it already, is Naomi Osaka.
Osaka, a 20-year-old born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, reached her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. Osaka, who has lived in the U.S. since age 3, and male veteran Kei Nishikori are both in the last eight here.
Japan last put a man and a woman into the quarterfinals of the same Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 1995.
It is well-timed, with the Tokyo Olympics approaching in two years.
“Every time the Japanese press is at a tournament they always talk about the Tokyo Olympics,” Osaka said in June, according to the Times of London.
Nishikori is already an Olympic medalist, taking bronze in Rio by beating Rafael Nadal.
Osaka just missed the 2016 Rio Games as one of the highest-ranked not to make the singles field. Osaka could have been ineligible anyway because she had yet to compete for Japan in Fed Cup.
Recent profiles marked Osaka’s rising popularity in Japan, a nation whose biggest sports stars have been baseball players. She could be the highest-profile female athlete for the host nation in two years.
Her coming-out tournament title came in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, an event often dubbed the sport’s fifth major. In Osaka’s very next match, she beat Serena Williams, albeit in Williams’ second event back from childbirth.
Osaka, now ranked 19th, and Williams could meet in the U.S. Open final. Osaka faces 36th-ranked Lesia Tsurenko in Wednesday’s quarterfinals and, potentially, 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys in the semifinals.
A spring survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that Osaka was the eighth-most popular athlete (active or retired) in Japan among female respondents, trailing seven men and retired figure skater Mao Asada. People were asked to name his or her favorite athlete, foreign or domestic.
Osaka ranked outside the top 10 for overall popularity among 1,207 male and female respondents over the age of 20.
Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open runner-up, ranked fourth overall behind baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro (now retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu. Potential Tokyo Olympians high on the list included golfer Hideki Matsuyama (seventh) and Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (eighth).
Osaka could also share exposure at Tokyo 2020 with 18-year-old swimmer Rikako Ikee, who just earned six golds and two silvers at the Asian Games. Ikee became the first woman to be named MVP of the entire Games.
Other big names on the road to Tokyo include wrestler Kaori Icho, potentially seeking to become the first athlete to earn an individual gold medal at five Olympics, and gymnast Kohei Uchimura, winner of the last two Olympic all-around titles.
Tennis was the 10th-most popular Olympic sport, with swimming, gymnastics and the marathon leading the list, according to the survey.
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