MELBOURNE, Australia - One year ago, Naomi Osaka was ranked No.72 in the world and was still chasing her first WTA title. A year on, the 21-year-old US Open champion is one win away from becoming the first Japanese player to ever hold the World No.1 ranking and the first player since Jennifer Capriati to win the next Slam after her maiden major title.
"It's a little bit unreal," Osaka told reporters after her gritty 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win over No.8 Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals. "At the same time I realize the work that I put in during the off-season. Every match that I played, I tried my best. It just felt like it was a continuous effort.
"Yeah, I mean, I can't believe it but at the same time it's sort of the reality I am in right now, so I can only keep going forward from here."
While her opponent on Saturday, No.6 Petra Kvitova has yet to drop a set in Melbourne, Osaka has had to battle through a series of tricky opponents. She was taken to three sets by Hsieh Su-Wei, Anastasia Sevastova, and Pliskova. In each match she was forced to steel herself against the doubts that used to plague her in tight moments.
"I think for me it's experience," Osaka said. "I've been in the third round. I was stuck there for two years. As soon as I could break away from that, now I'm here again, I think it's just experience and a confidence issue for me it's always felt like.
"I would love to say I'm that good, but literally I'm playing the best players in the world, and I've been playing three sets most of the time. It's more like a battle of will at this point."
"What I take away from this is that I never gave up, and that's something that I'm really proud of myself for. There are moments in the match where I thought, like, This is getting really close. I just thought I wouldn't forgive myself if I had, like, a little dip or a moment of accepting defeat."
"Whenever I have a tough loss, like Brisbane was the last tough loss I had, I feel like I learn a lot from it. The biggest thing I took away from that loss was the fact that I didn't really try 100%. I just accepted the fact that I was going to lose.
"For me, at this tournament, I wasn't really focused on winning. I just wanted to make sure I tried 100% on every point. I'm still here, so thankfully that's working out.
It will be a battle of streaks in Saturday's final, which will determine the new WTA World No.1. The winner will unseat current No.1 Simona Halep at the top spot on Monday. Kvitova is riding an 11-match win streak after her 7-6(2), 6-0 win over Danielle Collins in the semifinal, while Osaka is enjoying a 13-match win streak at the Slams. It's the longest Slam winning streak since Serena William's "Serena Slam" seasons in 2014 and 2015.
"I mean, we've never played before," Osaka said. "I think to have the opportunity to play her for the first time in a final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing.
"I've watched her play the Wimbledon finals. I know what a great player she is. It's definitely going to be very tough for me."
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who led the tour in titles last season with five titles last season, is a stalwart in tournament finals. The Czech has won her last eight championship matches and is undefeated in Slam finals (2-0). It will be a tough task for Osaka, who will be playing in her third final of the last five months, but Osaka says she won't get distracted by the big stakes of the match.
"Of course I think it's amazing if I could be No. 1," Osaka said. "For me, I just think about this tournament and each match and each step that gets me closer to the ranking. I don't think anyone plays a tournament and thinks immediately they want to be No. 1. I think they just think about the goal, which is winning the tournament.
"For me, last year I was ranked 70 something, I think. I'm just really happy that I'm in the position that I am now, and I'm not going to take it for granted."