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Naomi Osaka has a plan for BNP Paribas semis and for more tennis firsts

Naomi Osaka
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Earlier in her unexpected charge to the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open, Naomi Osaka said she wasn’t content to merely tie records set by those who went before her and that she wanted to establish her own firsts. She accomplished that on Wednesday with a 6-2, 6-3 upset of No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova, becoming the first Japanese woman to reach this stage of what’s known as a premier mandatory tournament.

The news made her smile. But it didn’t make her complacent.

“Oh, cool. OK,” she said. “I mean, 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.”

Sounds like a plan. So far, she has carried it out well enough to earn a semifinal matchup against world No. 1 Simona Halep.

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Osaka, 20, is the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father. She represents Japan but spent part of her childhood on New York’s Long Island. She’s smart and funny and photogenic — her long, wavy hair fans out in ways that photographers love — and she has an impressive arsenal that’s complemented by an analytic mind.

Knowing that Pliskova is a strong server and returner, Osaka and her coach, Sascha Bajin, came up with a solid plan. “Well, I knew that I had to really pay a lot of attention when I was serving, because it could have turned into one of those matches where, like, holding serve is very important,” Osaka said. “But when I got the break in the first game, I sort of shifted a little bit more attention to returning, because it seemed like she was a little bit unconfident on her serve today. I tried to focus a lot on returning and just making her play a lot of balls.”

Osaka also succeeded in maintaining her focus. “I feel like tonight it was really good because I think she’s a really good player,” she said, then paused. “That was a stupid thing to say. How do I say this?” she said. “Like, I feel if you give her the chance to, she’ll take the chance and run with it. I felt like at the very beginning I had to start really strong, and just to keep up that level is a little bit challenging for me. That’s why I think I dipped a little bit, but I’m proud that I came back too.”

She has lost all three of her career matches against Halep, including in the round of 16 at this year’s Australian Open. She has a plan for how to avoid a repeat. “I would say I made a lot of unforced errors while not really going for the shots that I had. So I’m just trying to commit more and also playing longer rallies at the same time,” she said. “So, yeah, that, and also just being happy to be in this position right now.”

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