Huge rally puts Naomi Osaka in Stuttgart semifinals


World No. 1 Naomi Osaka has hit back at her critics after fighting to a dramatic comeback win over Donna Vekic to reach her first career clay court semifinal on Friday.

The 21-year-old battled back from 1-5 down in the final set to beat Vekic 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4) but denied that she was struggling this year.

“I don’t know why people are saying I am having a bad season,” she said. “I won the Australian Open, right?”

Despite securing her second Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Osaka had not reached a semi-final since then before her thrilling comeback in Stuttgart, having suffered early exits in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami.

She admitted that the defeats, and the pressure of being No. 1, had affected her.

“I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. You can tell because I get antsy on court, whereas before, if I made a mistake, I would just act on it.

“When I am at my best, I wake up wanting a new challenge. In this phase, I felt like I was waking up just wanting to win.”

Osaka said that she had tried to “think logically” when she found herself on the brink of defeat in Friday’s quarterfinal.

“I try not panic anymore, because that costs energy,” she said.

“I just told myself I didn’t want to come away from here with any regrets.”

In Saturday’s semifinal, Osaka will face Estonian eighth seed Anett Kontaveit, who reached the last four after former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka retired hurt in the final set of Friday’s roller coaster late match.

Azarenka was serving for the match in the second set, but eventually threw in the towel after struggling with a shoulder injury at 0-3 down in the decider.

“It’s going to be a very tough match tomorrow,” Kontaveit said of her semifinal clash with Osaka.

Osaka cannot lose her No. 1 spot in Stuttgart, but she will be looking to keep a healthy points lead over world No. 3 Petra Kvitova, who also won her quarterfinal.

Kvitova overcame a rocky start to beat Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

In the semifinals, the Czech will face Dutch sixth seed Kiki Bertens, who beat home favorite and reigning Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-4.

“It’s going to be a tough match. Petra is a great player, so I am looking forward to it,” said Bertens.

In Barcelona, two-time champion Kei Nishikori won a clay slugfest with Roberto Carballes Baena 6-4, 7-5 on Friday to move into the semifinals for a fourth time.

Nishikori will take on Russian Daniil Medvedev on Saturday after the seventh seed stopped lucky loser Nicolas Jarry of Chile 6-3, 6-4.

Nishikori, the winner here in 2014 and 2015, served out victory after his 104th-ranked opponent slipped in the penultimate game and appeared to strain a right thigh muscle.

Carballes Baena took an injury timeout before returning to court as Nishikori wrapped up the win, his 16th of the season.

“In the first set, everything was working well for me,” Nishikori said. “I was hitting my forehand heavy, which I think you need to do on clay.”

The contest quickly turned into a series of pounding ground strokes from both players, Nishikori striking first when he broke in the opening game — enough to claim the first set.

But Carballes Baena struck back in the second, with Nishikori missing on eight break point chances in his opponent’s first three service games.