Reem Abulleil takes a close look at Naomi Osaka's march towards the semi-finals in Indian Wells.
Naomi Osaka’s star continues to shine bright in the California desert as the 20-year-old Japanese stormed into her first Premier Mandatory semi-final with a straight-sets win over Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday in Indian Wells.
Osaka, who is guaranteed a career-high ranking of at least 31 next week, is a revelation both on the court and off it, and one of the best things about her run here at the BNP Paribas Open is that she gets to sit with the press every day, showing more of her quirky sense of humour combined with wisdom beyond her years.
Here are things you should know about Osaka’s fortnight in Indian Wells so far…
RESPECT AND AMBITION
While Osaka shows great respect towards her peers and for the history of the game, she also has boundless ambition.
“I was just thinking that I would be really disrespectful to like start getting angry if I’m playing against Sharapova. Like who do I think I am to start getting angry while playing her?” Osaka said after her first round win over Maria Sharapova when she was asked how she stayed composed after the Russian had broken back in the second set.
When I told her on Tuesday she was the first Japanese woman since 1996 to reach the quarter-finals of Indian Wells, she said: “I would like to make new records, like, things that never happened before instead of breaking things that people have already done.”
On Wednesday, she became the first woman from Japan to make the semi-finals at a Premier Mandatory tournament.
When I told her about that new milestone, Osaka explained how she has far greater objectives, and is gunning for her compatriot Kei Nishikori’s records.
“I’m happy, but also I feel like it’s cooler to go to the finals and win it, so I’m going to try to do that,” said Osaka.
“But yeah. I mean, I feel like I want to break records for male and female. I’m coming for Kei,” she added with a laugh. “So, yeah, that would be a cool thing to do.”
SHE’S DOING IT THE HARD WAY
Osaka’s route to the semi-finals looks like this:
First round: Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4
Second round:  Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-2
Third round: Sachia Vickery 6-3, 6-3
Fourth round: Maria Sakkari 6-1, 5-7, 6-1
Quarter-finals:  Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-3
The average ranking of her opponents this fortnight is 47.2 and she has spent a total of 7 hours and 35 minutes on court.
Osaka was asked if it actually helped that she had to bring her A-game from the start of the tournament since she played Sharapova in her opening match.
“I get what you’re saying. Like, a tiny bit, and also not really. Because for me, I find it easier to play against the bigger players just because you know you have to constantly keep up the concentration and you can’t really afford to lose points,” explained Osaka.
“So I’m glad I was able to play them, and I’m glad I was able to play two night matches on center. So I feel like it did jump-start me quite fast. But also, I see no bad points about playing, like, a lower-ranked person too instead of playing Sharapova in the first round.”
SOLID ON SERVE
Osaka has won 74.2 per cent of the points on her first serve throughout the tournament. It is the highest percentage of all the quarter-finalists. Her 12 aces are the sixth-most struck of all the players in the draw and the second-most of all the quarter-finalists behind Petra Martic, who fired 18.
The young Japanese has also won 64.3 per cent of her service points, which is the second-highest percentage across all players in the draw and has won 77.6 per cent of her service games.
CALM AND COMPOSED
The temperature dropped significantly on Wednesday and players who had been practicing in the heat the past 10 days were suddenly wearing long sleeves on court and dealing with slower than usual conditions and strong winds throughout most of the day.
Osaka seemed unfazed by it all in her 6-2, 6-3 dismissal of world No. 5 Pliskova in the quarter-finals.
“I wasn’t really paying too much attention on it. I mean, I feel like when I move, I’m not really cold, so that didn’t bother me. But in the morning I saw that it was really windy, so I was thinking it was going to be windy later, but it wasn’t that bad. So the conditions weren’t, like, that important today for me,” said Osaka.
If you want to get an idea of how level-headed she is, here’s what Osaka said when asked whether she felt like this Indian Wells was a breakout tournament for her or not.
“A little bit both. I feel like this year I have been more consistent. So yes and no at the same time, because I feel like all the matches I have played at the start of the year, sort of they have been leading up to this. And I just want to keep this level throughout the entire year, because that’s what the good players do,” said the world No. 44.
Osaka is now 2-4 lifetime against top-five opposition and 3-11 against top-10 players.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT WITH HER
Osaka’s humour and fun personality have been at the forefront of most of her press conferences this fortnight. Here are some snippets from her conversations with the media.
Q. What are you pleased with the most so far this tournament?
Osaka: That I’m still here (smiling).
Q. What video games are keeping you occupied at the moment?
Osaka: It’s called EQ Worlds. It’s the most boring game ever, but if you play it with somebody, then it could be fun. But I’m just using that to keep my time occupied that I don’t get depressed that I can’t play Overwatch.
Q. Honest answer: Who is more famous, you or Taro? Did you actually talk to him to get that photo?
Osaka: Yeah, with a supervised adult, because — so I was gonna be, like, Wouldn’t it be cool if I just took a picture with him, right? Yeah, and then I was too nervous, so we just took a picture with everybody.
Q. Are you excited now or you are very calm?
Q. Now, yeah.
Osaka: No, I’m hungry and I’m sleepy. I mean, those are the main two feelings I have right now.
Question about whether her coach Sascha Bajin helps showing her the ropes traveling from city to city on tour.
Osaka: The thing is, okay, so, we were having, like, a debate, because he’s always like – once we go to this city, blah, blah, blah, I can take you anywhere, because it’s my city, right? I’m, like, um, he said that about New York. But the thing is, New York is sort of my city because I grew up there, so he’s going to have to pick a different city… I went somewhere with that question and I can’t go back.
Then I wanted to say something else. Oh, yeah. With the experience, blah, blah, blah.
I mean, he’s really helpful with that. I feel like — but he gets triggered very easily like — but other than that, he’s cool and stuff.