Former World No.1 Naomi Osaka of Japan overcame one of her most challenging rivals in the Miami Open semifinals on Thursday afternoon, outlasting No.22 seed Belinda Bencic 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach her first Miami final.
Osaka took just over two hours to pull off her comeback victory over Switzerland’s Bencic and reach her fourth career WTA 1000 final. Osaka will aim for her third WTA 1000 title, following crowns at 2018 Indian Wells and 2019 Beijing.
"In the second set I just told myself, 'Listen, if she beats you, someone is going to have to carry you off the court in a stretcher, because you're going to fight for everything,'" Osaka said afterward. "I think I just got opportunities and I was able to see them as opportunities. So I was able to push myself through it.
"I'm honestly glad that this was such a tough match, because I feel like you need that learning experience, and I learned a lot from today."
Osaka will now face incoming World No.1 Iga Swiatek in an eye-catching final, after Swiatek defeated Jessica Pegula in the nightcap semifinal. Osaka won their only previous meeting, when she beat Swiatek 7-6(4), 6-4 in the Round of 16 at 2019 Toronto.
Flipping the script: Four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka had won her lone ITF Challenger meeting against Bencic back in 2013, but at tour-level, Bencic had previously completely controlled their head-to-head.
Osaka and Bencic had their first three Hologic WTA Tour meetings in 2019, where Bencic went 3-0 against the Japanese player. During that run, Bencic ended Osaka’s title defenses at the US Open and Indian Wells, both times in the Round of 16.
But in their first clash since that season, Osaka was able to upend their rivalry on Thursday in Miami and claim her first tour-level win over reigning Olympic gold medalist Bencic.
"I was thinking I have been in this position with her before, because I have played her multiple times," said Osaka. "But I felt like all those times I have kind of been panicked. I was just telling myself, 'This is a really good chance to show yourself how much you have matured ... Just try not to repeat the mistakes that you have made before."
Osaka is now into her first Hologic WTA Tour final in over a year. Her last final came at the 2021 Australian Open, where she won her fourth Grand Slam title.
By the numbers: Osaka came into the semifinals nearly impenetrable on serve this fortnight, holding 35 out of 36 times in her four previous matches in the event. Bencic, though, broke Osaka four times in a valiant attempt to extend her winning streak against the former top-ranked player.
But Osaka eventually prevailed with more incredible serving at clutch moments. Osaka finished the match with 18 aces, the most by any player in a match so far this season. Recently retired World No.1 Ashleigh Barty held the previous high-water mark with 17 aces in the Adelaide quarterfinals.
With her current ranking of World No.77, Osaka is now the lowest-ranked Miami Open finalist, a record previously held by Kim Clijsters when she won the title in 2005 ranked No.38.
Osaka is projected to move to around No.36 in next week's rankings after reaching the final, and could return to the Top 30 with the title.
Match moments: Bencic took the first break of the day when she fired two straight blistering backhand returns to lead 2-1. A second break and a commanding 4-1 lead came Bencic’s way, and although Osaka clawed one break back, Bencic held on to claim the one-set lead.
"I kind of want to watch video footage of her backhand returns, because they were so good today," said Osaka.
But after dropping her first set of the event, Osaka came back strong in the second set. Osaka used a forehand winner to break for 4-2, and she leveled the match from there, causing Bencic to lose her first set of the tournament. Osaka had 16 winners to just seven unforced errors in the second set.
Early in the third set, both players fought through tough service games where they each saved multiple break points, but Osaka cracked open the decider with a break for 3-2 via another forehand winner.
Osaka edged ahead 5-2, but she could not serve out the match at that juncture. However, this proved to be a minor blip as Osaka used fiery serving to hold in the 5-4 game, earning a win over one of her most difficult opponents.