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.
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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