On a stormy night, Naomi Osaka is a Grand Slam champion

NEW YORK – The reverberations of an unfortunate and most dramatic Saturday night at the US Open will last well into the beyond.

But it’s important not to relegate the most important to the inside pages.

Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old who was born in Japan, raised on Long Island and tennis-educated in South Florida, is the US Open women’s singles champion.

And she soundly defeated Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and her childhood idol, to win it.

There was so much more. But that’s for another space.

Osaka played and competed in her first major final as though she had her omnipresent ear buds still in her ears. Somehow, she was able to completely shut out the loud crowd noise under the roof – and the major distractions emanating from the other side.

She played as though it wasn’t a big occasion – the biggest of her career. She played as though the greatest female player of all time wasn’t across the net. 

Poised, confident, flawless

It was a remarkably poised, confident performance at the end of an impressive fortnight. And along with the trophy and the huge check, it will catapult Osaka into the top 10.

“I mean, it doesn’t really feel that real right now. I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done,” Osaka said during the general press conference that was the last stop on an extensive media tour after the victory.

“Right now it just feels, like, I don’t know. Aside from the fact there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament,” she added.

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It was hard to find a happy face after this US Open final, full of drama and discovery and conflict.

“I feel like she was really, really consistent. I think her game is always super consistent. And I felt like she played really well. Like I said, she made a lot of shots. She was so focused. I think, you know, whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve,” Williams said. ” Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match. I hope to learn a lot from that.”

No. 20 seed last one standing

It was a women’s tournament full of early casualties. In the very first match on the very first day, the official opener on Louis Armstrong stadium, No. 1 seed Simona Halep was beaten in straight sets by Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.

Osaka was quietly going about her business on the Grandstand and out on Court 17. She lost just seven games through her first three rounds. And then, she was under the radar no more. Osaka survived a tough one against another 20-year-old, Aryna Sabalenka, who was the form player coming in. And after she dismissed 2017 finalist Madison Keys in such impressive fashion in the semifinals, there was room to hope she could handle Williams’s power well enough to at least make it an entertaining final.

She did so much more than that. If it felt, before it happened, that it was mostly up to Williams, it ended up being primarily up to Osaka. Which must have been a serious shock to Williams.

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There was a WHOLE lotta noise on Arthur Ashe Stadium, so Osaka found a little safe place.

Osaka served beautifully. She handled Williams’s second serve well. Crucially, she handled the important points well. She did everything well – especially finding a way to shut out all the noise.

“I think I was able to do that because it was my first Grand Slam final. I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” said Osaka. “So, yeah, I just thought, like, no matter what happens outside of the court, for me, when I step on the court, it’s just about tennis.”

Coach Sascha Bajin said during the ESPN broadcast that his charge was extremely nervous. But although we still know little about what makes Osaka tick,  we do know this: the nerves, the fatalistic thoughts that she may not play well, are such an integral part of her being as a competitive tennis player, she may not even let them faze her even on this big night.

Emotions flowing

Osaka’s reaction on court after one last error from Williams, when she had won the title, was to slide her visor down over her face. 

She was greeted at the net by a big smile and a big hug from Williams who, to her credit, did her utmost in the aftermath of all the drama to at least try to ensure that Osaka’s first Grand Slam win would be a good memory. 

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“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying. You know, she just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment,” Williams said. “I felt like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam’. I was like, ‘Wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.’ “

There were plenty of emotions on that court in the aftermath from both women. Osaka said she was trying to process it all, and couldn’t attribute them to winning, to feeling sad for her idol losing as she chased history, to all the drama, or to what the triumph might mean to both her career, and to her entire family.

“I just feel like I had a lot of emotions, so I had to kind of categorize what was which emotion,” she said.

Oblivious to the magnitude

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Few have ever been in Osaka’s situation – never mind at that age. So it’s impossible to even fathom how this introverted, remarkably childlike young lady could take it all in and handle it. She just did.

Maybe a few days from now, it will all hit her. Her innocence and insouciance is probably making the enormity of it only a theory, for now. 

When she goes back and looks at the video – if she does – she’ll see all the drama that went on around her. It was drama she insisted she really didn’t hear, partly because of the noise of the crowd and also because of her own determination to stay on her own side of the court.

Maybe she won’t even grasp what an impressive feat it was until she gets into that position again and has something to compare it with. And there’s no reason to think she won’t.

At this point, Osaka may not even grasp how incredibly difficult it is to do what she did. She just did it. It’s just something she did. No biggie.

The most emotional moment may well have been just before she hugged her lookalike mother Tanaki after she made her way up to see her friends and family.

Mom, by all accounts far more outgoing and expressive than her daughter, tried to stay composed. But as she neared her daughter – when she first made eye contact with her – she just dissolved into tears. (She wasn’t the only one).

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A coach-player relationship that worked

The talented young player with great power that had yet to be harnessed has blossomed, with the help of an inexperienced coach who turned out to be the perfect choice. The raw ore morphed into a polished product capable of performing that way on the biggest stage.

There is so much more to come for Osaka. Not all of it will be good. A lot of it will seem like too much. The expectations that weren’t there before will now be laid upon her strong shoulders. Everyone in Japan is going to want a piece of her.

And, as it happens, Tokyo is her next WTA Tour stop. 

So there will never be a moment this pure, this innocent. You hope she can, in her own iconoclastic way, find a way to enjoy it to the fullest before the avalanche hits.

(Screenshots from ESPN/TSN)

Legend takes on upstart in US Open women’s final

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.”

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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.

us open Day 8 – Preview

NEW YORK – The final countdown to the most anticipated showdown of this (non-capitalized) us open begins.

But before Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer can meet in a blockbuster quarterfinal, they still have to get through quality opponents in their Labour Day fourth-round matches (click here for the schedule).

The draw gods have been kind to both, with the upsets earlier in the tournament.

Djokovic plays Joao Sousa of Portugal, a 29-year-old who reached the top 30 just before the French Open this year, but who is currently ranked No. 68. 

The seeds in that section were No. 12 Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, and No. 17 Lucas Pouille of France – a friendly section, to be sure. But Sousa defeated them both in four sets. So he earned his spot. And in his 24th career Grand Slam, he is into the second week for the first time in his career.

The two have met four times, thrice in Grand Slams. And Djokovic has never lost a set. In 11 sets, Sousa has won more than two games only three times – and never more than four.

Federer vs. Millman for a shot at the Djoker

Federer is in a similar situation, as he takes on unseeded Aussie John Millman in a late-night match tonight.

He’s a player Federer referred to as a “hard worker”. He’s not the only one to attach those two words to Millman’s name. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.

It means that players respect his work ethic and determination.

But, for the top players, it also usually means they don’t consider him a major threat, even if they don’t underestimate him.

Millman, also 29, is ranked No. 55, just off a career high reached a month ago. It’s an impressive comeback after a torn groin tendon required surgery in 2017, and back woes held him back at the beginning of this season.

A year ago, Millman was ranked No. 235.

The two have only met once, back in 2015 at Millman’s hometown tournament in Brisbane. Federer prevailed in three sets.

Next-Gen – WTA style

Madison Keys meets No. 29 seed Dominika Cibulkova, and Maria Sharapova meets No. 30 seed Carla Suárez Navarro in fourth-round matches today.

But the match that may light the fire on the women’s side will be between a pair of 20-year-olds.

Both Naomi Osaka of Japan (via New York) and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus are 5-foot-11. And both have had career years this season.

Osaka was the surprise winner at Indian Wells, a big tournament title the reserved 20-year-old may not quite have been ready for. She has just one victory over a top-50 player since then. That came against Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania at Nottingham, just before Wimbledon.

She defeated Laura Siegemund, qualifier Julia Glushko and unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich to get to this fourth-round match. That’s a friendly draw; she didn’t have to face No. 11 seed Daria Kasatkina (another young up-and-comer) after Sasnovich took care of her.

Osaka and Kasatkina met in the Indian Wells final back in March.

But it wasn’t so much the level of opponent as the pain Osaka inflicted upon them. She has lost just seven games in three matches – five of them in the first round against Siegemund. And she has a string of three consecutive 6-0 sets on her resumé coming into the match.

Sabalenka on a roll

Sabalenka has had a fine summer. After a breakthrough final in Eastbourne, she was a first-round loser at Wimbledon – it was too big a tournament, too soon. But she took some experience from that.

The bellowing Belarussian has beaten Caroline Wozniacki (Montreal), Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys and Caroline Garcia (in Cincinnati) and Julia Goerges and Suárez Navarro (on her way to her first career WTA Tour title in New Haven the week before the US Open).

Her first-round match in New York, against Danielle Collins, came quickly afterwards. But instead of a repeat of what happened at Wimbledon, she defeated the American in three sets, and blew away Petra Kvitova in the third round to earn the date with Osaka.

The two are meeting for the first – but definitely not the last – time.

Draw gods cruel as Osaka gets Serena in Miami

The Indian Wells runs by finalist Daria Kasatkina and champion Naomi Osaka were a superb breath of fresh air for the WTA Tour.

The two sparkling 20-year-olds ran through many of the top players of the last decade on their way to the final Sunday, even if the final was somewhat of an anticlimax.

But getting to the top isn’t nearly as hard as staying there.

Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams – all of whom fell to the two youngsters this week – have demonstrated that staying power, to various degrees.

They know, from experience, that it’s not what you do this week. It’s what you do next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

Osaka is about to find out exactly what a challenge that is as she heads to the Miami Open. Because the draw gods have been particularly cruel to her.

After getting Maria Sharapova in the first round at Indian Wells, Osaka has drawn … the unseeded Serena Williams in the first round of the Miami Open.

That is just plain mean. For both of them.

A perfect draw storm

It might not have happened, but for the fact that the Miami tournament and the BNP Paribas Open are back-to-back. The 10-day span of the second straight Premier Mandatory event means Osaka’s pre-Indian Wells ranking is still used for seeding purposes.

That’s not just for Osaka, of course, but for all the players.

The Japanese No. 1 will be ranked No. 22 on Monday. But she was ranked No. 44 coming in, therefore was not the recipient of a first-round bye. Had Monday’s rankings been an option, she would not have had to face anyone – let alone eight-time Miami Open champ Williams – in the first round.

It also would have given her an extra couple of days to rest, process and make the significant adjustment from the weather and surface in the desert to the humid conditions in Miami.

Williams, whose official ranking stands at No. 495 after the BNP Paribas Open, can use a protected ranking to enter tournaments (although she received a wild card in Miami). 

But protected rankings do not allow for a player to be seeded. So for the moment, the longtime No. 1 will be a rank-and-file player in the draw of every tournament she plays.

Waiting for the winner  of Osaka vs. Williams will be Elina Svitolina, the world No. 4. So that’s no picnic for her, either.

That is one tough section of the draw. And two of them will be out before the tournament gets through the first weekend.

Kasatkina gets some draw luck

Contrast that with the first-round match that has two teenaged wild cards and 2017 Grand Slam junior champions, Whitney Osuigwe and Claire Liu, facing off. Or wild card Bernarda Pera and Lara Arruabarrena. Or even … qualifier vs. qualifier. 

Kasatkina, who went down rather meekly in Sunday’s final just two days after outlasting Venus Williams in the best women’s match of the tournament, got the better end of the deal in Miami.

By far.

She will be No. 11 in the world on Monday. Still, her pre-Indian Wells ranking puts her as the No. 19 seed in Miami. She has a first-round bye and will play the winner of Belinda Bencic and a qualifier in the second round.

The Miami draw holds plenty of intrigue from the very first rounds, as the other dangerous wild card, Victoria Azarenka, will meet American teenager CiCi Bellis in the first round. The winner of that will play the struggling Madison Keys.

Wind, Part II – Osaka’s Tweener tries (video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Naomi Osaka’s struggles with the “tweener” have been documented.

It’s not a necessary shot to have in the arsenal.

But it’s one any tennis player with a bit of sass will want to be able to pull out when needed.

So it was time to get a little help with it. And Russia’s Daria Kasatkina was conscripted for just that purpose.

A great “fun” player promo idea, it was.

Except that it was the worst possible day to try it.

Weather gods cruel

It’s not an easy shot as it is. But the way the wind was blowing on Saturday, it was darn near impossible – even for Kasatkina, who can hit that shot.

But hey, many laughs were had.