INDIAN WELLS EAST: Both Indian Wells champions – Juan Martin del Potro and Naomi Osaka – are into the Open finals.
THE LAND OF THE RISING SON AND DAUGHTER: Both Osaka and Kei Nishikori have gone deep into the US Open. Both were born in the land of the rising sun, Japan, then made their way to the Sunshine State, Florida. When he arrived, Kei knew no English. To this day Naomi’s mastery of Japanese is a sometimes curious work in progress. All the while, by a considerable measure, she is the WTA’s most delightful rising star. Nishikori’s prospects have long been muted by injuries and disappointing results. But here he prevailed over former US Open champ Marin Cilic in a five-set marathon.
For the first time, two Japanese players reached the semis of a Slam – who knew? Osaka is trending upward. Born in Japan with a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, she came to the New York area before going to Florida. That gives her four fan bases. But the appeal of the unassuming baseliner is universal. The Indian Wells champ is just 20, is seeded 20 and will face the best player of all time in Saturday’s final. She will have some things going for her. For years her coach Sascha Bajin was Serena’s hitting partner, and sometimes the focus of her fun-loving jibes. Sascha knows Serena’s tennis DNA well. And Osaka beat Serena handily in Miami.
Bajin describes his pupil as an innocent who is “beautifully different.” She’ll have the pressure of being a first-time Slam finalist. It’s a huge factor. As a kid she dreamed of beating Serena, yet Williams is a far different player than when the two met five months ago in Florida. There is a 16-year gap between the two. And there is another gap. Osaka is a superstar-in-the-making, while her foe is the greatest player of all time who, if she prevails, will win a Slam for the seventh year in a row and create history by equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slam singles titles.
As for Nishikori, the 28-year-old scored a win in high heat over Novak Djokovic in 2014. But that match was an outlier. Like Kei, the Serb is a fleet baseliner with a great backhand. But he has too much game for Nishikori. This evening he pushed Kei back and ran him to distant corners. From early on in today’s semi, it was clear there would be just one Japanese player in the US Open’s two finals. With his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win today, Novak claimed a commanding 15-2 record over Kei.
Djokovic will be favored in Sunday’s final. He and Juan Martin del Potro haven’t met in 15 months and have never faced each other in a Slam final. But the Serb has won their last three matches and has a commanding 14-4 record over Delpo. The Argentine prevailed en route to winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Recently Delpo, who is ranked No. 3, has been on fire. Some say he is a future No. 1. The US Open is his favorite tournament, his forehand is one of the best in the game, he serves big and can attack Novak’s second serve. Plus, the gentle giant is beloved. His quiet dignity connects, not only in the Argentine suite, high on the south side of Ashe Stadium, but throughout the tennis world. Delpo is an emotional man and feelings will be high Sunday. Juan Martin noted that when he beat Rafa and then Roger back-to-back in 2009, he wasn’t the favorite.
But, unlike Osaka, Novak is hardly a newbie. He’s won nine straight Slam semis and will be in his 23rd major final. With his hard-to-penetrate defense, his superb court coverage and great backhand, he will be ready and eager to win Wimbledon and the Open back-to-back and claim his third Open title and 14th Slam. There’s still a chance he could finish his career with more Slams than Roger and Rafa. The meditating man with the great return of serve always visualizes new mountains to climb. Many would love to see the lovable soul del Potro prevail, but few will bet against the Serbian mountain climber, who still is eager to reach the greatest summits in his game.
THE PROVOCATIVE ARCHIE BUNKER GRIT OF QUEENS IN ONE SENTENCE: The urban grit en route to the US Open offers an Archie Bunker world of aluminum siding, big flags and graveyards, smoke stacks, old age homes, liquor warehouses, check-cashing stores, ball fields, traffic jams, quick lube outfits, bargain basement shopping malls, McDonalds, high schools, a twisting maze of old-school parkways, broad boulevards, intimate neighborhood streets and alleys, an old fair site that seems to have ghosts, British gas stations, Dallas BBQ joints, jungle gyms and slides, daunting high-rise brick housing projects, daycare centers and Holiday Inns.
WHAT MAKES DEL POTRO SO SPECIAL? Inside Tennis noted that del Potro is beloved and that he connects with people around the world and then asked Djokovic why. The Serb said his friend is “a gentle giant. He really is. He’s very tall, has a big game, but at the same time he nurtures the right values in life. He cares about his family. He cares about his friends. He respects everyone. He fights every match from the first to the last point. People can relate to that and appreciate what he brings to tennis.
“He treats others the way he wants others to treat him. That’s why people love him.”
A LOW MOMENT: Del Potro said that his lowest moment when he was off the tour came in 2015 when he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his wrist and didn’t feel good about himself.
SUPREME BUMMER: One of the most deflating moments in tennis is when a player withdraws from a match. And it is all the more painful when the game’s top fighter, Rafa Nadal, does it. He now has pulled out of two Slams this year. Today his withdrawal was due to his bad knees, and he also withdrew with a right leg injury from his Australian Open quarterfinal this year against Marin Cilic.
GO FIGURE: A US Open that began with the loss of No. 1 seed and French Open champ Simona Halep and then saw a steady stream of top prospects fall by the wayside is ending up with a very unsurprising finalist, Serena Williams, who is in her 31st Slam final and in her 9th US Open final. A year ago, Serena was between her third and fourth surgeries.
OSAKA’S SURREAL DREAM: On the subject of reaching the US Open final to play her idol Serena, Naomi Osaka says, “Of course it feels a little bit, like surreal. Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam.” Asked how her dream match as a kid played out, Osaka smiled and said, “I didn’t dream to lose.”
AMERICA MATTERS: There are nine Europeans in the women’s top 10 and Europeans Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Angie Kerber won the first three Slams this year. And let’s not even talk about men’s tennis, which has long been dominated by Europe. But here at the US Open, where Californian and Floridian Sloane Stephens won last year, there will again be an America-based champion: either Serena, or Floridian Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan but has lived most all her life in the US and seems as American as you can get.
MIKE AND JACK SOCK IT TO ‘EM IN DOUBLES FINAL: With his brother Bob recovering from serious surgery, Mike Bryan collected his record-setting 18th Grand Slam doubles title and his second straight win with Jack Sock, beating the 2017 Wimbledon champs Marcelo Melo and Lukasz Kubot 6-3, 6-1. Bryan won his first 16 majors with his brother Bob, and then paired with Sock and won Wimbledon in just their second event together.
Mike Bryan has surpassed John Newcombe’s record for most major doubles titles, and at 40 years, 4 months old he becomes the oldest Grand Slam doubles champ of the Open era. Six of his wins came at Flushing Meadows.
Seeded third, Sock and Bryan are the first team to win consecutive Grand Slam doubles titles since Bob and Mike won four in a row from 2012-13. Plus, they are the first duo to win Wimbledon and the Open back-to-back since Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge in 2003.
“It’s a little bittersweet to do it without Bob, just because we’ve been a package deal for so long,” said Mike. “I know how badly he wants to be back out here, but to suit up with Jack and have him help me do it again was really cool.”
COCO COOLED: Hot Floridian prospect Coco Gauff, this year’s French Open girls’ champion and last year’s US Open girls’ finalist, was cooled off by Ukrainian qualifier Dasha Lopatetskaya 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 in the quarters of the girls’ singles. But she and fellow American Caty McNally have reached the semis in girls’ doubles.
UNFAIR TO A RUSSIAN MOM: Ukrainian Lopatetskaya is a charmer. She joked that she and her sister both know English, so that’s the language they speak when they want to leave out their mother, who only speaks Russian.