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Naomi Osaka’s popularity in Japan ahead of Tokyo Olympics

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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 was ranked 87th in the world on the rankings cutoff date to choose the Rio Olympic field in June 2016.

The lowest-ranked player to make the Olympic women’s singles field — outside of continental/tripartite/host country representation — was No. 86. 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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David Boudia adjusts diving event, goal for world championships

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David Boudia earned diving medals at his last three world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but that was on the platform. He competes on the global stage on the springboard for the first time at worlds this week.

“I don’t have a lot of high hopes,” Boudia, who is still learning the springboard after switching to it in the last year, said in a phone interview from South Korea, where he begins competition Wednesday (TV schedule here). “But I think my biggest goal is to walk away with an Olympic spot.”

An Olympic spot not necessarily for himself, but for the U.S.

Boudia, a 30-year-old father of three, and any other American will clinch 2020 Olympic quota spots by placing in the top 12 in their respective individual events this week. Those spots, and any others earned at later competitions in the next year, will be filled at trials in June in Indianapolis.

NBC Sports analyst Cynthia Potter believes Boudia, who left the sport to sell homes in 2017 and came back and suffered a concussion off the platform in 2018, can meet his goal of making Friday’s 12-man final in Gwangju.

“He would have to dive well, but not better than he’s been diving,” she said. “His springboard is really well-timed, rhythmic, and he’s for a long time known how to go into the water without making a splash.”

But challenging Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists Cao Yuan of China and Jack Laugher of Great Britain, plus defending world champion Xie Siyi of China would be very tough.

Boudia lacks their degrees of difficulty, for now. He hopes to switch out two of his six dives before his first competition of 2020, though he could insert one of them should he make the world final.

“I need a good six months, so from August to December is when we’re kind of really drilling the fundamentals of learning those new dives and getting them perfected,” he said.

Boudia rallied to beat Rio Olympic springboard diver Michael Hixon for the title in May at nationals, where the top two per event earned world berths. But Boudia competed there with about a month of competition dive practice, about half as long as he would prefer.

“Hix and I are going to have a lot of training to do if we want to be even close to cracking that top five,” at worlds, Boudia said in May, according to TeamUSA.org.

Boudia is the lone U.S. diver to earn an individual world medal in an Olympic diving event since 2009.

The U.S. produced breakthroughs at worlds so far. Sarah Bacon became the first American woman to earn a world title since 2005, taking the non-Olympic 1m springboard event. Murphy Bromberg and Katrina Young bagged bronze in synchronized platform, ending a decade-long medal drought in any synchro event.

But Boudia’s goal must be shared among the whole team — as many top-12 finishes individually and top three in synchro events to gobble up Tokyo 2020 quota spots. The U.S. failed to qualify full teams for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

“Getting in the top 12 in the four individual Olympic events is the big deal right now,” Potter said. “Whether you are on the awards stand or not, that would be icing on the cake for a lot of these divers.”

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Anita Wlodarczyk, one of track and field’s most dominant, sidelined

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Poland hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk, the only woman to win the last five combined Olympic and world titles in a track and field event, will not go for a fourth straight world championship this fall.

Wlodarczyk had season-ending, arthroscopic left knee surgery on Monday, according to Polish media citing her coach.

Wlodarczyk, 33, has the top 15 throws on the IAAF’s all-time list, and 27 of the top 29. Her world record of 82.98 meters (scribbled on her leg pre-op) is 11 and a half feet farther the second-best woman in history. She originally took silver at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds but was upgraded to gold after Russian Tatyana Lysenko was stripped for doping.

Wlodarczyk won a reported 42 straight finals between 2014 and 2017, then suffered three losses in 2018 and two so far this year in three lower-level meets before the operation.

Americans DeAnna Price and Brooke Anderson rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year. A U.S. woman has never finished in the top five of an Olympic or world championships hammer throw, which debuted at worlds in 1999 and the Olympics in 2000.

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