Former world No.1 Naomi Osaka has reached a championship match for the first time since the 2021 Australian Open.
Osaka’s eyes welled with tears when her Miami Open semi-final against Belinda Bencic ended, an all-too-familiar scene for her in recent years.
Only this time these were tears of the happy variety.
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The unseeded Osaka defeated No.22 Bencic 4-6 6-3 6-4 on Thursday to set up a Saturday final against soon-to-be world No.1 Iga Swiatek, a player on a formidable winning streak.
“Damn, I’m almost crying,” Osaka said.
She hid her face in an orange towel a few times right after the match ended, at least one tear clearly making its way down her right cheek.
Osaka, who entered the tournament ranked world No.77, will leave Miami no worse than 36th and would be back in the top 30 if she wins the title.
It has been a long, trying and often emotional ride for Osaka since her win in the 2018 US Open final over Serena Williams.
She was rattled during a loss at Indian Wells on March 12 following a derogatory shout from a spectator, withdrew from last year’s French Open to address her mental state and left last year’s US Open in tears.
But in South Florida, one of the places she considers home, it’s been all support from the fans.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” Osaka told them in her on-court interview.
Second seed Swiatek, who will replace the now-retired Ash Barty as the No.1-ranked women’s player next week, beat American Jessica Pegula 6-2 7-5 in the other semi-final on Thursday night.
The straight sets win for the 20-year-old Polish star means she has now not dropped a set in eight straight matches dating back to the fourth round at the Indian Wells Open where she beat Angelique Kerber two sets to one.
She is unbeaten in her last 16 matches, a streak which has already yielded WTA 1000 titles in Doha and Indian Wells.
Osaka won her only previous clash with Swiatek 7-6 (7-4) 6-4 in the round of 16 at Toronto in 2019.
If Swiatek can avenge that loss and defeat Osaka, she will become the fourth player to win titles at both Indian Wells and Miami in the same season, completing the “Sunshine Double.”
She would join Stefanie Graf (1994 and 1996), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Victoria Azarenka (2016) in that select group.