NEW YORK – Even as she was trying to close out her semifinal match against Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka was using a potential meet-up with the legendary Serena Williams in the final as motivation.
And she got there, in impressive fashion.
And so, during a US Open in which the WTA Tour’s top 10 were, collectively, not up to the task, it is the No. 20 seed against the upgraded No. 17 seed for the title.
And somehow, it feels right.
Osaka made a big splash last March, when she ran through the field at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. It was a huge victory – her first and, still, only title – and one she might not have been ready for.
But these things happen when they happen. Six months on, after an impressive run in New York, she seems better equipped to handle what may come.
“Of course it feels a little bit, like, surreal. 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,” Osaka said after the win over Keys. “At the same time I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
Easier said than done, as Williams’s run to the final has been equally impressive. She’s not yet back to the best Serena, as her daughter Olympic turns one. But it has been close enough. And given the state of the women’s game at the moment, it has been more than enough.
“My mom said it takes, like, a full year to kind of get back. I’m at a full year now. But I’m also playing a sport professionally. The emotions and expectations and all the other stuff that you add on top of it, it’s a lot, you know. I just feel like I’m definitely not there. Even my body is different. Like, I actually weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, but it’s distributed differently now,” Williams said.
“I’m still waiting to get to be the Serena that I was, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that physically, emotionally, mentally. But I’m on my way. I feel like I still have a ways to go. Once I get there, I’ll be able to play even hopefully better.”
Williams is looking for that record-tying 24th major title. As serendipity would have it, Margaret Court won her 24th and final major title exactly on this day, 35 years ago, at the US Open. It was held at Forest Hills then, and played on grass.
Serena thought she might get it at Wimbledon, but she was denied by Angelique Kerber.
But Kerber was a different opponent. She didn’t serve as hard, or hit the ball as hard. Plus, she was already a Grand Slam champion and had been ranked No. 1 in the world.
A new world for Osaka, citizen of the world
For Osaka, this is all new territory. And it’s the culmination of a turnaround this year, after a 2017 season in which she was below .500.
The addition of Sascha Bajin, the longtime hitting and confidante of Serena Williams who was getting his first shot at a coaching job, proved a stroke of genius.
At this level, there aren’t a ton of technical changes – or even significant tactical changes – that are made. The players’ games are what they are. And so on the itemized list of coaching qualities, the personal rapport between player and coach has never been more key. The rest is hardly rocket science.
Bajin, a loyal, likeable fellow, has been around big-time tennis long enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. During his years with Serena, he got a close-up view.
And as a younger, less stern, highly energetic coach who also can keep up with his player on the hitting side, he has proven to be a huge positive.
One thing that has started happening is that Osaka is serving hard again.
We remember the first time we saw her play, more than three years ago at a small ITF event in Granby, Quebec, right after Wimbledon.
She was playing Laura Robson, who won Wimbledon juniors as a 14-year-old and has been a cautionary tale for too much, too soon ever since. Robson had hip surgery a few months ago.
But what we’d forgotten from that match was just how hard Osaka used to serve. She was blowing them past Robson. And at times, she’d come close to nailing a center line umpire – which made her apologize and giggle every time.
Coaches’ press conference
Bajin held his own press conference after Osaka reached the semis.
There’s no doubt he can be of serious assistance to Osaka against Williams. Because he knows his former boss so well – probably better than anyone she has ever worked with, with the exception of her parents and Patrick Mouratoglou.
“I think they really are different people, because the only similarity they have is that they kind of have the same hair – big hair,” he said, smiling. “I believe that they kind of want to play the same, you know. They are very powerful, big serves, big hitters, both of them. But even on court, Serena is very aggressive, you know, and Naomi, I have to push her to get a fist pump out of her. … I’m working very hard, and we are all, in the team, working hard to make sure that Naomi one day might own the court like Serena.”
Here’s Osaka 2 1/2 years ago, playing her first-round qualifying match in Charleston. Emotions on full display.
First meeting in Miami
It was the (bad) luck of the draw that Osaka’s first match after that Indian Wells win was at another big tournament in Miami against … Serena. Williams’s ranking was still down in the nether regions, and Osaka’s desert result hadn’t yet kicked in. So despite the 32 seeds in the Miami draw, both were unseeded. And they were drawn against each other.
Finally, Osaka was playing her idol. But Williams was a shadow of herself that day and it was, all in all, awkward. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2.
“I kind of wanted to impress her,” said Osaka. “I just wanted to make her say ‘Come on!’ one time, and I think she did, so I’m really happy about that.”
Williams was so chapped about the whole thing that she went out the exit from the stadium court, through the hallways leading outside – and straight into a waiting SUV and off she went.
It was only her second tournament back after a maternity break.
“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now. I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation. It was what it was,” Williams said. “I mean, hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
All about carpe diem
Will Osaka seize the day? Coach Bajin says she “really craves the big stage”. Cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, with more than 23,000 on hand, is the biggest stage there it.
“It’s really cool that I was able to play her so early (in Miami). Of course, I feel like since the circumstances were so different, I’ll be able to see, like, how she changed and stuff. I think that experience was really good for me,” Osaka said.
For Williams, chasing more history but in a far better place physically than she was a few months ago, it will very much come down to nerves. As she turns 37 in a few weeks, those match nerves become more of a factor. That’s true of every player, not just Williams.
She has been pushing back these younger rivals for years now. And there’s nothing like a player technically young enough to be your daughter poking the beast with the understandable, “I’ve been watching Serena since I was a little girl” types of quotes.
But she’s getting more of her inspiration from her own journey.
“I got a little emotional out there (after the semifinal win) because last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital. I think I was on my fourth surgery by now. What is today? I was on my third surgery. I had one more to go still. To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still,” She said.
“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”
On this date in 2001
It was also 17 years ago today that Venus and Serena Williams met to contest the US Open final.
It was a Saturday night final, the first one.
The major schedule change to prime time was effected precisely because the two American sisters (and Jennifer Capriati) were in contention. And there was expectation that it would happen many more times over the years.
It was a purely American change, because it meant the final would be played in the middle of the night across all of Europe.
Venus won that one. Since then, she won three times at Wimbledon. But other than those triumphs on the grass, that was the last time she won a Grand Slam title. It’s crazy, when you think about it.
The all-Williams final at the US Open happened again the follow year. Serena won it. And it has not happened since.
Since then, the primetime final was moved back to 4 p.m.