INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Naomi Osaka tiptoes through press conferences but rampages through tennis matches. She’s eager to unravel the notion that tennis could ever be a genteel game of rhythmic back-and-forth. Osaka is not here for the back-and-forth. When she sends the ball over, she absolutely does not expect to see it ever again. If you fire a cruise missile, you aren’t interested in getting it back.
Her opponent in Wednesday night’s quarterfinal was Karolina Pliskova, the lithe and long-limbed fifth seed who resembles a powerful bird of prey on court. She is a former No. 1 player with one of the tour’s best and ace-hungriest serves, and groundstrokes loud with flat power, all of which suggest she would be able to dictate the points. Osaka was not interested in that suggestion. She put the punctuations marks wherever she wanted. Her style guide dictates that the sentences ended prematurely, on exclamation points. The first set of their match was a thorough demolition, a statement of purpose: Osaka’s purpose is to hit a winner right by her foe at the soonest possible moment.
Osaka broke Pliskova’s serve twice to go up 4-1, treating that big serve as a slightly challenging ball machine for searing return winners (overall she claimed an anomalously high 57 percent of points on return). When Pliskova approached the net, it was an invitation for highlight-reel passing shots. When she tried to rally from the baseline, Osaka sent her scurrying from corner to corner, so that the only possible reply could be a hunched-over chip. In all this she made the 6-foot-1 Pliskova look almost ungainly, as if her size and reach were liabilities, not assets. Pliskova wasn’t playing her best tennis, but it was largely because Osaka refused to give her any opportunity to find it. It was one, two, three shots—exclamation point.
Blame the stat-keeping at this event, because I can’t tell you how many winners Osaka actually hit in that first set. It felt like at least a dozen. When she dug low to rip a two-handed backhand it made her hair streak out like an ombré comet’s tail, and it made the septuagenarians two rows off the court lose their breath. When she faltered, as she did to start off the second set, she tried to motivate herself with two taps on her leg and the most muted fist pump. When Pliskova blew an ace by her, as she did five times, Osaka would stare at the spot with a certain slowness of gaze. You got the sense that she could keep contemplating the spot unless someone reminded her there was a tennis match to be played.
Fortunately Osaka is still playing tennis, and with serious force and purpose. Tomorrow she will play her first semifinal at a Premier-level event, against the tournament’s top seed Simona Halep. If she wins it will be, technically speaking, an “upset,” but the events of this week suggest that the 20-year-old may not be long for the language of “upsets”—she will be at the top, rolling a forehand down the mountain faster than anyone can follow it.