Kei Nishikori, Naomi Osaka keep Japan’s flag flying at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 05: Men’s singles semi-finalist Kei Nishikori of Japan and women’s singles semi-finalist Naomi Osaka of Japan pose for a portrait outside The Kitano Hotel following their quarter-final matches on day 10 of the 2018 US Open at The Kitano Hotel on September 5, 2018 in New York City. Alex Pantling/Getty Images/AFP
Alex Pantling / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

When this 50th anniversary edition of the US Open kicked off, there were 128 men and 128 women from many countries. As the fiesta reached semi-final stage, only the host country and Japan have two gladiators standing. Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori are seeded 20 and 21 respectively yet they have their country’s flag fluttering in the wind in the semifinals. This is the stuff of which history is made.

A week before the U.S. Open served off, there was a report of the struggles the 19-year-old Naomi had endured along the way; especially in her country of birth, where people have rigid disposition about ethnic purity. It was indeed ironic that her Haitian father and Japanese mother opted to name her after the famous city where she was born but in which she and her sister Maria could not be raised. At this time, however, her success has endeared her to millions in Japan.

Naomi Osaka registered her rise in March at the WTA event in Indian Wells where she defeated, in succession, Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova, Serena Williams and world number one, Simona Halep.

Naomi began her campaign at the U.S. Open on the Grandstand Court and defeated Germany’s Laura Siegemund while dropping only five games. Israel’s Julia Glushko took only two games from her in the next round on Court 17, while Anna Sassnovich of Belarus did not register a game in a Grandstand outing. On moving to the limelight in Louis Armstrong Stadium for the fourth round, Naomi lost the second set but prevailed 6/3; 2/6; 6/4 over another player from Belarus, Aryna Sabalenka. She over-powered Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko 6/1; 6/1; in the quarterfinals.

Kei Nishikori was in the top 10 before injuries pushed his ranking down. After surgery on his right wrist, he resumed training and had to change his service technique. He ploughed back and rose in the rankings to deserve his slot in the draw.

His bid for a U.S. Open title started with a straight sets win over German Marterer on Court 17, while his first outing in the Louis Armstrong stadium was quick, as Gael Monfils of France retired in the second set.

The tough Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, took one close set (7/5) from Kei in the Grandstand but he had a straight-sets victory over Germany’s Peter Kohlschreiber before outlasting Marin Cilic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the quarters; a retaliation of his loss in the 2014 final match.

Osaka will face America’s Madison Keys today, while Nishikori will have a battle with Novak Djokovic of Serbia tomorrow. In a world where sports contests attract nationalistic emotions, Naomi and Kei will be watched and cheered on by millions of Japanese at home and abroad.