Falling to end the round three match-up, Osaka struggled to continue the rhythm established early on. But she did do one thing during Keys’ comeback rally that captured the attention of thousands in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Two years later, Osaka was faced with a similar situation at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, but triumphantly outlasted the oncoming Aryna Sabalenka, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, who even had the advantage over Osaka, who was down 5-4 and at match point.
Again, Osaka cried. This time, though, they were tears of relief, joy, and accomplishment.
“I don’t know, you tell me,” the entertaining Osaka – fresh off earning a bid to her first Grand Slam Quarterfinal – told BQE Media with a laugh when asked how much she feels she’s grown since the Keys collapse.
“I mean, for once in my life, I actually think that I was the player with more experience, which is very odd for me to say,” she added.
Still over a month away from turning 21, the 5-foot-11 Osaka turned pro in September of 2013, and is already a veteran on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit after making her main draw debut in July of 2014 at age 16.
Even so, it’s not often Osaka is the veteran on the court, which she admits is a welcome change.
“I feel like there were moments that I kind of knew what to do,” she said. “Maybe since she’s [Sabalenka] so young, she was a little bit hesitant. So yeah, I mean, I feel like I learned a lot from the match I played here two years ago, which people keep bringing up. I’m grateful I had that experience.”
The Keys clash was part of her coming-out party, lasting all of 2016, and earned Osaka WTA Newcomer of the Year honors. She joins former winners Venus and Serena Williams, the latter of whom Osaka considers her idol, and who she defeated in straight sets this past March in the Miami Open.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that this summer’s US Open marks Osaka’s best performance at a major to date. Her father, Haitian-born Leonard Francois, attended college at NYU before moving to Japan, where he met Osaka’s mother.
Born in Osaka, Japan, the rising star moved to America at three years old, primarily growing up in Florida, but also at times in and around NYC.
Part of her childhood was spent on Long Island, a short trip away from the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which she frequented as a kid. Her and older sister Mari – also a professional tennis player – even practiced and played on US Open soil.
The younger Osaka posted a photo on her Instagram standing in front of the famed globe in Flushing Meadows Park days before the tournament captioned: “I used to run around here when I was little.”
“I’ve always dreamed of playing here and going to the quarterfinals and further, so I’m just glad I could do one of my goals,” she said. “Every time I play a Grand Slam, people ask me if I’m going to go farther than the third round.
“Then in the Australian Open, I went to the fourth round, then people said, ‘Are you going to go farther than that or is this where you’re going to stop?’” she added.
On Wednesday the plan is to go even further. She’ll look to re-capture that level of enjoyment she experienced as a child and this past Monday. Her opponent? An un-seeded Lesia Tsurenko, a veteran with over a decade of experience and the lone WTA singles athlete remaining without a number next to her name.
She defeated second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in round two last Thursday.
Osaka – whose only WTA Tournament victory came at the BNP Paribas Open this past March – has been incredible, losing her only set at the US Open to Sabalenka on Monday, two days after winning 6-0, 6-0 against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
The 20th seed Osaka likely enters as the favorite in the quarterfinal as the tennis world keeps its eye out for the birth of a possible new superstar in Queens.