MIAMI GARDENS: Naomi Osaka's eyes welled with tears when her match ended, an all-too-familiar scene for her in recent years.
These were of the happy variety.
For the former world No. 1, that's major progress.
The unseeded Osaka defeated No. 22 Belinda Bencic 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday in the Miami Open semifinals. She's in a championship match for the first time since the 2021 Australian Open, and will meet No. 2 Iga Swiatek for the title on Saturday.
“Damn, I'm almost crying," Osaka said after her match.
Maybe not even almost. She hid her face in an orange towel a few times following the final point, at least one tear clearly making its way down her right cheek. Osaka entered this tournament ranked No. 77 in the world, will leave Miami no worse than 36th and would be back in the top 30 if she wins the title.
It has been a long, trying and often emotional ride for Osaka since her win in the 2018 U.S. Open final over Serena Williams. She was rattled during a loss at Indian Wells on March 12 following a derogatory shout from a spectator, withdrew from last year’s French Open to address her mental state and left last year’s U.S. Open in tears.
But in South Florida, one of the places she considers home, it's been all support from the fans.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you," Osaka told them in her on-court interview.
Swiatek — who will replace the now-retired Ashleigh Barty as the No. 1-ranked women's player in the world next week — beat Jessica Pegula 6-2, 7-5 in the other women's semifinal on Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev came into the tournament as the No. 2-ranked men's player in the world. Hubert Hurkacz ensured he will stay there.
Hurkacz — the No. 8 seed and defending Miami champion — wore down the top-seeded and cramp-riddled Medvedev 7-6 (7), 6-3 on Thursday in a men’s quarterfinal.
“Every muscle just went ‘cramp, cramp, cramp, cramp,'" Medvedev said.
Had Medvedev prevailed, he would have overtaken Novak Djokovic on Monday and returned to No. 1 in the world rankings. Instead, the Russian will stay No. 2 in the world and find out who wins the Miami title on Sunday like everyone else.
“For me, it was more important in a way just to win the match itself than to become No. 1,” Medvedev said. “Winning the match, I saw it more as a bonus.”
Hurkacz, who is from Poland, will next meet No. 14 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain in the semifinals. Alcaraz defeated unseeded Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) on Thursday night in the last men's quarterfinal.
“I was returning pretty well, I was putting some pressure on his serves and that was helping my game,” Hurkacz said. “I was able to get some free points on my serve and that was pretty big.”
The other semifinal pits sixth-seeded Casper Ruud of Norway against unseeded Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina.
Hurkacz has played Medvedev four times, and Medvedev has been ranked No. 2 in the world in each of those meetings — which they’ve now split. Hurkacz improved to 14-5 this year, and his record in Miami is 12-1 all-time.
“Coming here is so much fun,” Hurkacz said.