“I think it’s the start of a great rivalry,” Swiatek said.
For Osaka, this tournament marked a remarkable turnaround that few saw coming, even if she felt like it was not far off. Just three weeks ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a lone heckler rattled her during her second round match, bringing her to tears and triggering memories of the racist treatment Serena and Venus Williams endured at the event two decades ago.
But it also seemed to suggest that Osaka, who lost 6-0, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermatova that night, might not be up for the grind and pressures of the professional tennis tour after a year filled with breaks and setbacks, a disclosure of a yearslong struggle with her mental health and questions about whether playing tennis could ever make her happy.
In South Florida though, her home for most of her childhood, a far-steelier Osaka took the court, and she played a lot like she had when she won four Grand Slam tournaments. She won eight consecutive sets on the way to a semifinal match in which she battled back against an opponent, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who had beaten her repeatedly for years.
Osaka was once more ripping forehands through the court and coming up with unreturnable laser serves when she needed them most. Beyond the tennis, though, there has been a lightness to her experience. Even in defeat Saturday, she could not help but grin as the hometown crowd smothered her with cheers.
They were never louder than when James Blake, the former pro and the tournament director for this event, gazed at Osaka during the awards presentation and said, “I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to see you happy again.”