Naomi Osaka finds new motivation despite defeat in Miami

“I think this is the beginning of a great rivalry,” said Swiatek.

For Osaka, this tournament marked a remarkable turning point that few saw coming, although they felt it was not far off. Just three weeks ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, she was rocked by a lone heckler during their second round match, making her cry and bringing back memories of the racist treatment Serena and Venus Williams received at the event two before suffered for decades.

But it also seemed to suggest that Osaka, who lost 6-0, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermatova that night, may not be ready for the grind and pressures of the professional tennis tour after a year of fractures and setbacks, a revelation by a years-long battle with her mental health and whether playing tennis could ever make her happy.

In South Florida, where she spent most of her childhood, a much steelier Osaka came onto the court, and she played much like she did when she won four Grand Slam tournaments. She won eight straight sets en route to a semifinal match in which she fought back against an opponent, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, whom she had repeatedly beaten for years.

Osaka ripped through the court again with forehands, coming with non-refundable laser serves when she needed them most. Beyond tennis, however, there is a lightness to her experience. Even after Saturday’s loss, she couldn’t help but grin as her hometown crowd showered her with cheers.

They were never louder than when James Blake, the event’s former pro and tournament director, stared at Osaka during the awards ceremony and said, “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you happy again.”