Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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Naomi Osaka upset by Belinda Bencic at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka‘s U.S. Open title defense came to an abrupt (but perhaps not too surprising) end, two days after she co-authored the moment of the tournament.

Belinda Bencic, the No. 13 seed from Switzerland, beat Osaka (7-5, 6-4) for the third time in three meetings this year to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Monday. Osaka also cedes her No. 1 ranking to Australian Ashleigh Barty, who was also eliminated in the fourth round on Sunday.

Bencic gets No. 23 Donna Vekic, a good friend and fellow former teen star, in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“The challenge cannot be bigger, against Naomi,” Bencic said. “I had to be at the top of [my] game.”

Osaka’s exit means Serena Williams, who plays No. 18 Wang Qiang in a Tuesday quarterfinal, is the only woman left in the draw who has made a Grand Slam final. Williams eyes a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title and her first as a mom after losing three Slam finals the last two seasons.

Also Monday, American Kristie Ahn‘s unexpected run ended at the hands of No. 25 Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-1. Ahn, a wild card ranked 141st, went 11 years between U.S. Open main-draw matches. Mertens gets another surprise American, Taylor Townsend, or No. 15 Bianca Andreescu of Canada in the quarters.

In men’s action, No. 20 Diego Schwartzman upset No. 6 Alexander Zverev 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, continuing the 22-year-old Zverev’s struggles at Slams. Schwartzman, a 5-foot-7 Argentine, plays No. 2 Rafael Nadal or No. 22 Marin Cilic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

U.S. OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Osaka’s follow-up the last week to her first Grand Slam title last year included another emotional post-match scene. After sweeping 15-year-old American Coco Gauff on Saturday night, Osaka urged Gauff to join her for the traditional on-court victor’s interview. Gauff obliged.

Osaka, whose U.S. Open title last year was accompanied by boos directed toward chair umpire Carlos Ramos for penalizing Williams, was lauded for her sportsmanship.

“Right now I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament,” she said. “I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match.”

While Osaka finished last season as the WTA Tour’s new phenom, she goes into the last portion of this season having not made a final since the Australian Open in January. She withdrew from her last tournament before the U.S. Open with a knee injury, had that knee wrapped in every match this week, and took a painkiller and walked gingerly late in Monday’s match.

“I don’t want to say that that’s the reason that I lost, because I obviously had played, like, three matches before this,” Osaka said.

Then next year, she’ll be tasked with defending those ranking points in Australia and answering more questions about the Tokyo Olympics, where she will be one of the host nation’s biggest names across all sports.

Bencic knows the spotlight well. Formerly coached by Martina Hingis‘ mom, she was a junior No. 1, a U.S. Open quarterfinalist at 17 in 2014 and a top-10 player at 18. Injuries followed. Her ranking dropped to No. 318.

“There were times when you’re injured you ever wonder if you can play at this level again,” she said. “Then I also believed if I’m going to get back and healthy, I can play on this level, because I proved it so many times.”

Now 22, Bencic is having her best season, making her first Slam quarterfinal since that 2014 U.S. Open run. In addition to beating Osaka three times, she earned her first WTA Tour title since 2015 and made the semifinals at Indian Wells, considered the sport’s fifth major.

Now Bencic faces the biggest opportunity of her career as the highest seed left in the top half of the draw.

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Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open run ended by Naomi Osaka

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NEW YORK — Coco Gauff‘s first U.S. Open in the main draw proved arguably as memorable as her Wimbledon run last month. It ended Saturday, when defending champion Naomi Osaka served her out 6-3, 6-0 in the third round.

Then Osaka, 21, approached Gauff, 15, and urged the youngest woman in the tournament to share the on-court victor’s interview.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka, who was memorably in tears after beating Serena Williams in last year’s final, when boos for the chair umpire rained down, told Gauff. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff at first declined.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from her, as well.”

Gauff played her first match at Arthur Ashe Stadium and did so against the No. 1 woman in the world. She struggled with unforced errors (three times the number of her winners) and double faults (seven), while Osaka played up to her title and ranking.

Gauff ended her first Grand Slam season (in singles) having become the youngest woman to make the Wimbledon fourth round since Jennifer Capriati in 1991 and the youngest to make the U.S. Open third round since Anna Kournikova in 1996.

“I’ll learn a lot from this match,” she said. “She’s the No. 1 player in the world right now, so I know what I need to do to get to that level.

“After the match, I think she just proved that she’s a true athlete. For me the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend. I think that’s what she did tonight.”

Osaka advanced to play No. 13 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland in Monday’s fourth round. If she makes it back to the final, she would do so without having to play a top-12 seed. But, so far, she co-authored the moment of the tournament.

“I kind of thought of it when I shook her hand,” at the net, Osaka said. “She was a little bit teary-eyed. Then I was thinking to myself, [what] the people don’t see is we go into the locker room and just cry. … She’s had an incredible week, so I thought just to make a positive statement out of it.”

Four Americans are among the last 16 — Serena Williams, seeking a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, No. 10 Madison Keys, qualifier Taylor Townsend and wild card Kristie Ahn.

U.S. OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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