An emotional Naomi Osaka continued her resurgence with an impressive comeback victory over Belinda Bencic in the Miami Open semi finals.
The former world No.1 had to hit back from a set down to see off the Olympic champion 4-6 6-3 6-4 and reach her first WTA Tour final since winning the 2021 Australian Open.
Osaka, who can move back into the world’s top 30 if she triumphs at the tournament, will now face Iga Swiatek or Jessica Pegula in a showdown for the trophy.
The world number 77 fired down 18 aces against Bencic – the most in a WTA Tour match this season – and she was fighting back tears as she spoke on court following her victory.
“Damn, I’m almost crying,” she said in response to huge cheers from the crowd. “This tournament means a lot to me. It’s my first time in the final here and I’m really thankful. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a final – I think it was the Australian Open last year – so thank you guys so much, I really love you from the bottom of my heart.”
Asked how she overcame an opponent who was leading their match-up 3-1 coming into the contest, she added: “Honestly, I don’t think I figured her out at all. I hit a couple of really good serves and she just hit winners on them. I felt like all I could really do is keep fighting and somehow I managed to win. She’s an amazing player and I wish I had her return!”
The contrast of styles made for an intriguing spectacle right from the off as momentum switched throughout the opening set. Osaka surged through an early hold and had break opportunities on Bencic’s first service game but the Swiss stood firm during what proved to be a lengthy test with some staunch defence.
It provided her with the platform to launch an assault on the Osaka second serve that paid dividends as the 22nd seed reeled off four games in a row. She dismantled Osaka’s serve twice in that run, which was particularly impressive given that the four-time Grand Slam champion had only been broken once all week, against Alison Riske in the fourth round.
Osaka was struggling to time her usually devastating groundstrokes as Bencic continued to take the ball early, but she did finally make some inroads with a sizzling forehand winner contributing to her snaring a break back to stop the rot. Bencic briefly wobbled as she blew two of three set points but came through on the last one when Osaka hooked a forehand into the net.
It was the first set Osaka had dropped in Miami and she responded in the right manner. Once again Bencic fell under pressure in her opening service game of the set, but this time she couldn’t wriggle free as Osaka gunned a huge backhand up the line to break for a 2-0 advantage.
Bencic was looking increasingly agitated, muttering in German to her box, but she did hit straight back after a lengthy tussle saw her eventually prevail on a fifth break point opportunity.
However, Osaka was now making fewer unforced errors and beginning to unload more winners off both flanks. It was the recipe for a three-game blitz that paved the way for her to serve out the second set with ease and force the decider.
The unseeded Japanese was the first to pose a question in the third set but clutch tennis from her opponent once again saw her dig her way out of trouble from 15-40 down. Bencic maintained the momentum into the next game at 2-1 but a pair of huge serves swatted away break points before a lengthy face-off at deuce went the way of Osaka.
It felt like a pivotal game and proved to be the case as the world No.77 made her move with a rasping return winner to notch up a third break point before a big forehand moved her ahead. Osaka consolidated with an emphatic game to love to lead 4-2 and she didn’t look back as she relentlessly broke again to move to the verge of victory.
A twitchy service game prolonged the action and Bencic posed the serve-out question for a second time, but Osaka steeled herself to get the job done in two hours and six minutes and move within one match of winning the third WTA 1000 tournament of her career.
Amazon Prime pundit, Tim Henman has been hugely impressed with Osaka’s form in Miami and feels the WTA 1000 tournament deserves a showpiece final between the multiple Grand Slam champion and Iga Swiatek, who will rise to world number one next week.
“She’s been building that momentum all week, from the first match,” he said. “She’s looked in control and I think she’s been in a good place mentally. She was very emotional after this match. Her ranking is not representative of the way she is playing.
“Look at the brilliant way the draw has unfolded on the women’s side. You’ve got Osaka in the final and Pegula or Swiatek in the other semi final. For me, it would be fantastic if Swiatek could get through to that final because that would be an unbelievable match up.”