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Kimiko Date tips Naomi Osaka as future No. 1

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

After becoming a Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka can follow her historic U.S. Open triumph by becoming the first Japanese player to become No. 1 in the world, predicts former Japanese great Kimiko Date.

Though Osaka’s moment of glory was overshadowed by Serena Williams’ meltdown during her stunning 6-2, 6-4 upset of her idol on Saturday, the 20-year-old demonstrated she has the game, and the grit, to be a serial winner, according to Date.

“To play like that in her first Grand Slam final was just amazing,” Date told AFP.

“To keep your cool like that, from the moment you step onto court to the last point, isn’t easy,” added the former world No. 4, who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1996.

“If she continues to develop the way she has over the past two weeks and stays motivated, she can go on to be Japan’s first world No. 1.”

Osaka jumped 12 places to No. 7 in the latest WTA rankings on Monday.

At a photo shoot in Manhattan on Sunday, a “very tired” Osaka continued to field questions about the contentious match, in which Williams drew her third penalty with an angry outburst at chair umpire Carlos Ramos, costing her a game when she stood just two games from defeat.

“The thing is, I’m not really sure what happened between Serena and the umpire. And I keep getting asked questions about it, but I’m not too sure,” said Osaka, adding that the penalties had not diminished her sense of accomplishment in winning the match.

“For me . . . I think it’s still a win, so I’m just going to count it as that.”

Osaka, whose next scheduled tournament is the Toray Pan Pacific Open later this month in Tokyo, said she was still too exhausted to celebrate.

“It still doesn’t really feel that real. I think right now, what I’m feeling is very tired . . . so hopefully as that wears off I’ll start feeling more happy.”

Williams, who received a $17,000 fine for her outburst, jumped 10 places to 16. The 23-time Grand Slam winner continues to climb back following a 13-month maternity absence during which her WTA ranking plummeted to 491.

Osaka put Japan firmly on the tennis map with her shocking victory over Williams, who was chasing a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam singles crown.

Fighting fire with fire, Osaka’s game mirrors that of the American with her big serve, murderous shots off both flanks, particularly the forehand, and steely determination.

Date likened Osaka to China’s Li Na, who retired in 2014 after winning the French and Australian Opens and reaching No. 2 in the world.

“Osaka is taking on the power tennis of the women’s game with power of her own — an Asian player, a Japanese player,” said Date, who retired last year at the age of 46.

“Until now only Li Na had the physique to be able to tackle that kind of power. You could tell Serena was wary of Osaka’s power.

“And she’s still developing. The top players will be studying her now and she will have to go from being the challenger to a position where she has to produce.”

Osaka, a self-confessed Pokemon nerd whose playful nature has made her a favorite on the women’s tour has become an unlikely hero in Japan, which is still reeling after a summer of deadly typhoons and earthquakes.

The first Japanese player, man or woman, to capture a Grand Slam singles title, Osaka won her first WTA tournament at Indian Wells in March when her speech during the trophy presentation went viral.

“This is probably going to be the worst acceptance speech of all time,” she blushed.

Osaka, who is of Haitian-Japanese descent and was raised in the United States, replies to questions from Japanese media in English with a subtle Caribbean lilt, frequently apologizing for her rudimentary Japanese.

Messages of congratulations flooded in for Osaka, including tweets from Kei Nishikori, who became the first Japanese men’s player to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 US Open.

After earning $3.8 million in prize money, Osaka’s off-court earnings are set to increase tenfold over the next couple of years from $1.5 million to more than $15 million, according to Forbes.

The test will be how she reacts to her sudden fame, starting with the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo later this month.

But her remarkable poise in Saturday’s final bodes well.

Even when Williams became irate, calling umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” after a code violation over coaching quickly escalated to her being docked a point for a smashed racquet, and then a game for repeated insults, Osaka kept her cool.

After serving out the match, Osaka showed her softer side, bursting into tears as boos rang out from fans still outraged over her Williams bust-up with Ramos.

Date gave a withering assessment of the crowd’s reaction after Osaka was clearly unable to savor her achievement.

“For the atmosphere to turn like that after Osaka’s first (major) final was a pity,” she said. “To think how she must have felt not to be able to properly enjoy her victory and to see her crying made my heart ache.”