NEW YORK, NY, USA -- 20-year-old Naomi Osaka blasted her way into the first Grand Slam final of her career on Thursday night, ousting 2017 finalist Madison Keys of the United States, 6-2, 6-4, to reach the 2018 US Open final and becoming the first woman representing Japan to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era.
No.14 seed Keys had won the three previous encounters between the two players, but it was the Japanese player, who claimed her first title at Indian Wells earlier this year, who was the more solid player on the day, emerging victorious in 85 minutes.
"I feel like every day that I play, I always want to keep improving, so I'm never really sure what my top level is," said Osaka, during her post-match press conference. "But I think for sure today I played really well, and I had to because [Keys is] such a great player. She has a really good record against me."
No.20 seed Osaka demonstrated extreme composure to go with her power game during the semifinal tilt, and brilliantly fended off all 13 break points she faced throughout the encounter. Osaka also won over 60 percent of points on Keys' second serve, and the American was undone by 32 unforced errors in the match.
"The last few times I've played Madison, I've been the one that's been trying to go for shots," said Osaka, who had claimed that her quarterfinal victory had been "business," in contrast to her emotional fourth-round win. "Today I was just trying to be more patient and maybe go for them when I had the opportunity. So I wasn't trying to hit that many winners or anything. Today was, I guess, business, too."
In her first Grand Slam final, Osaka will match up against 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who dispatched Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3, 6-0, in the earlier semifinal on Thursday night. In their only prior meeting, Osaka defeated Williams, 6-3, 6-2, in the first round of the Miami Open earlier this year.
"Of course it feels a little bit surreal," Osaka admitted. "Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it's happening, I'm very happy about it."
"I really feel like I don't want to overthink this match, so I'm not going to think that she's so much better than she was in Miami," Osaka continued. "I'm just going to go out there and play. Since I already know she's a good player, I don't want to be surprised if she plays better or not."
Osaka found herself in trouble on serve at 1-2, with big Keys returns putting the Japanese player down triple break point. Slowly but surely, though, Osaka used strong deliveries to extricate herself from the tricky position, and eventually held for 2-2, saving a total of four break points in the process.
That escape unlocked a flurry of games for Osaka, as she played a much more measured and composed opening frame than Keys. Osaka claimed the first break of the match at 3-2, and then survived another protracted game on her serve to hold for 4-2, saving two break points.
Osaka then broke Keys at love, and served for the set at 5-2, which she took on her second set point after a strong serve forced a netted return. Osaka took two-thirds of points on the second serve of Keys, and the American was undone by 18 unforced errors in the set, to only five winners.
The second set was a tense affair, but Keys had to try to play catch-up through the entire timeframe, as the American dropped serve in the opening game after she allowed another of her huge forehands to fly long on break point.
In the 12-minute second game, Keys held six break points, as she picked up the pace on her groundstrokes and fired her way to opportunity after opportunity. But Osaka continued to excel with her serve at clutch moments, and saved all six break points en route to a hold for 2-0.
Keys began to race through her service games as the play that took her to the title match last year re-appeared, but, despite holding one more break point at 4-3, she was never able to regain footing on the Osaka serve when it counted.
The American slammed an ace to hold at love for 5-4, hoping the pressure would pile on the first-time Grand Slam semifinalist. But after dropping the first point while serving for the match, Osaka moved through the rest of the game with ease, blasting one final incredible serve to book a spot in her first Grand Slam final.