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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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Yuzuru Hanyu eyes quadruple Axel this season

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Yuzuru Hanyu is getting serious about his dream to become the first figure skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition. He said Thursday that he wants to this season, according to Japanese media.

“I am still unable to jump it yet,” Hanyu said, according to an Olympic Channel translation. “I’d like to jump within this season.”

Hanyu is next scheduled to skate at the Autumn Classic in Ontario in three weeks, his first competition since he repeated as Olympic champion in PyeongChang.

“No one in competition has achieved successful quadruple Axel jumps, and there are very few people actually practicing even during training,” Hanyu said in PyeongChang, according to The Associated Press. “I want to continue my challenge towards achieving my dream of successfully performing the quad Axel, even if I may not be the first person to do so.”

Hanyu’s coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, reportedly said in PyeongChang that, “if anybody could do it, it would be him. I just don’t want him to get hurt.”

Several skaters have attempted quad Axels in practices, including landing it in a harness.

“My coach and I are going around the idea of starting the quad Axel,” Canadian Olympian Keegan Messing said at the world championships in March, according to Inside Skating. “It’s a dream I’ve had for a very, very long time – as soon as I found out that no one did it, I wanted to be the first.”

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Olympic wrestling legend shatters strange Guinness World Record

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Saori Yoshida, who owns a record 16 combined Olympic and world wrestling titles, recently added a much stranger accolade.

The Japanese sports legend shattered the Guinness World Record for most balloons burst by sitting in one minute.

Yoshida, a 35-year-old who last competed in Rio and is assumed to be retired, popped 123 balloons on a Japanese TV show, according to Guinness. As of Jan. 26, the record had been 95 balloons.

Video of Yoshida’s record is here.

Yoshida went into the Rio Olympics looking to become the first woman to win an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She was upset by American Helen Maroulis in the final, in tears wearing the silver medal on the podium.

Yoshida is among the most famous female athletes in Japan, which hosts the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Fellow wrestler Kaori Icho, less of a celebrity, did earn that unprecedented fourth individual gold earlier in the Rio Games.

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