• Kyodo, Reuters


Naomi Osaka booked her ticket to the Toray Pan Pacific Open semifinals with a straight-sets win against Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic on Friday.

Having quickly overpowered Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova in the previous round, the U.S. Open champion had to dig deeper for her 6-3, 6-4 victory over the 25th-ranked Strycova in 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Osaka, the world No. 7 struggled to land her first serve early in each set at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi and gave her opponent a number of second chances with inaccurate shots. But in both sets, the local favorite eventually took control after finding her rhythm.

The 20-year-old Osaka said she had been prepared for a tough match against the eighth-seeded Strycova, having split their two past encounters on the WTA circuit.

“This was my third time playing her, and each time it was very close, so I knew she was very good,” Osaska said.

Osaka, who won the previous meeting between the pair in the opening round of Wimbledon last year, broke Strycova in the fourth game to go up 3-1, but the 32-year-old Czech broke back in the seventh game.

In the following game, third seed Osaka produced an array of dazzling returns to break her opponent once again before serving out the set in 42 minutes.

Having saved a break point in her opening service game of the second set, Osaka leveled the scores at 1-1 with her third ace of the match, a 190-kph thunderbolt. She secured the crucial break in the fifth game to go up 3-2.

In the 10th game, Strycova saved one match point with a cracking forehand winner for deuce, before Osaka earned another match point with an ace. The favorite then made no mistake, sealing the win with an unreturnable serve.

Earlier in the main arena, 2017 quarterfinalist and former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic survived a thriller against unseeded American Alison Riske.

After breezing through the first set, current world No. 8 Pliskova had to fight hard for her 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-4) victory over the tenacious Riske, who had reached the quarters by upsetting another former No. 1, sixth-seeded Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, in the last 16.

No. 4 seed Pliskova will face Donna Vekic in the semifinals after the 45th-ranked Croat upset sixth-seeded Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-4.

Halep praises Osaka

Simona Halep believes this year’s French Open victory has helped justify her position as the women’s world No. 1, with the Romanian saying she was now playing pressure-free tennis and motivated to add more Grand Slam titles to her resume.

Speaking to a small gathering of reporters in a phone interview on Friday, the 26-year-old also earmarked U.S. Open champion Osaka as a huge prospect for the future after she made her major breakthrough in New York.

“My dream was to become No. 1 and I managed that last year and then my goal was to win a Grand Slam because some consider that a sign of being a true No. 1,” Halep commented.

“So my motivation was to win a major after I reached the top of the rankings and now I feel relaxed after achieving both. I am still motivated to win every match and now the pressure feels off, I can just feel the pleasure of playing.”

Halep knows all too well the pain of losing a Grand Slam final after suffering three failures in as many title matches before she rallied past American Sloane Stephens in Paris to prevail 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 on her favorite clay surface in June.

The mental and physical exertion of that triumph seemed to take a toll on the baseliner midway through the season but Halep believes her form in North America indicated she was close to playing her best tennis.

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