Naomi Osaka in with a No. 1 shot in Toronto (video)

TORONTO – Don’t look now, but Naomi Osaka could be world No. 1 again at the end of the week, if things break right at the Rogers Cup.

She would have to advance one round further than current No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, and No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova would have to not win the tournament.

Simona Halep (the No. 4 seed) is the defending champion and Sloane Stephens, seeded No. 7, the defending finalist.

Stephens v. Halep is a potential quarterfinal here.

So is Osaka vs. … Serena. That would be a rematch both of last year’s US Open final and a shocker in Miami earlier that year after Osaka won Indian Wells, arrived in Miami unseeded and … sent Williams packing in the first round.

Both of those potential matchups are in the bottom half. So Osaka has a fair bit of work to do, to outpace Barty in the tournament.

The 21-year-old lost in the first round in Montreal a year ago, to qualifier Carla Suárez Navarro. Pliskova lost in the second round to Kiki Bertens. 

Barty is defending 350 points with her semifinal effort in Montreal a year ago. But she has a 377-point lead over Osaka.

As for Halep, she’s close to the other three in terms of the total number of points. But she’s defending the title, so anything that might close the gap is completely out of her hands.

Here’s a fit-looking Osaka on the practice court Monday.

Four No. 1s – all in a row in Toronto (video)

TORONTO – If you got to the Rogers Cup early enough – and it seems not that of the fans do, even on a holiday Monday – you were in for a treat.

Not one, not two, not three – but former world No. 1 practicing side by side on the four main practice courts.

Right in front was Venus Williams. Next to her, sister Serena.

Then Karolina Pliskova, who was practicing with Elina Svitolina.

And on the end, the one closest to where the fans who didn’t have posh privileges could watch, was the most recent of them at the top spot, Naomi Osaka.

Osaka and Pliskova both have a shot at regaining the No. 1 spot in the rankings, depending on how things shake out this week in Toronto.

Here’s what it looked like.

And here’s Pliskova doing All-Access media stuff on Sunday, talking about Simona Halep winning Wimbledon, among other topics.

WTA Ranking Report – June 24, 2019

With her win at Birmingham Sunday, 23-year-old Aussie Ashleigh Barty becomes the No. 1 player on the WTA Tour.

It’s an epic rise – not because of her talent, which has always been undeniable – but because it seemed to occur out of the blue.

Not many players go from winning at the French Open, head straight to the grass, and win again.

But Barty did it. She jumped into the top 10 after winning in Miami, and leaped to No. 2 after winning in Paris.

With the win in Birmingham, she took the final step to the top.

And in so doing, there’s no doubt she’s a big favorite for Wimbledon not only because of her current form, but because of her game.

Barty reached the third round at Wimbledon a year ago, losing to Daria Kasatkina (whose career, in 2019, has gone completely in the opposite direction after she hit the top 10 in 2018).

The Aussie has played on the final weekend at Wimbledon before. Back in 2013, she reached the doubles final (as well as the French and US Open doubles finals) with countrywoman Casey Dellacqua.

ON THE UPSWING

Ashleigh Barty (AUS): No. 2 =============> No. 1

Sofia Kenin (USA): No. 30 =============> No. 28 (This tough competitor wins in Mallorca, overcoming her last three opponents in three sets, and reaches a career high).

Jelena Ostapenko (LAT): No. 37=============> No. 35 (The Latvian won a couple of matches in Mallorca, but she has a long way to go).

Yulia Putintseva (KAZ): No. 43=============> No. 39 (Her second-round win over her in Birmingham helped knock Osaka out of the No. 1 spot).

Australia's Ashleigh Barty, left, shakes hands with Venus Williams of the U.S after beating her during day seven of the Nature Valley Classic at Edgbaston Priory Club, Birmingham, England, Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nigel French/PA via AP)

Venus Williams (USA): No. 55 =============> No. 44 (She turned 39 during Birmingham, at which she received a wild card and lost to eventual champion Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals).

Maria Sharapova (RUS): No. 85 =============> No. 80 (The Russian finally returned last week in Mallorca, and won a match. She’ll play an exhibition match at Hurlingham before Wimbledon).

Kristyna Pliskova (CZE): No. 112 =============> No. 95 (A win over her twin in their first professional meeting helps the lefty get back into the top 100).

Monica Niculescu (ROU): No. 142 =============> No. 113 (Niculescu, who had been out a few months with injury, wins the Ilkley ITF and with it, a wild card for the Wimbledon main draw. Four of her five matches went three sets).

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Sharapova returned for the first time in nearly five months in Mallorca, but lost in the second round to Angelique Kerber.

Barbora Krejcikova (CZE): No. 138 =============> No. 118 (Known mostly for her doubles success with Katerina Siniakova, the 23-year-old Czech has been winning at the ITF level in singles. She’s at a career high after winning a $60K event in Stare Splavy over Denisa Allertova in the final and stands at No. 6 in the doubles rankings).

Timea Babos (HUN): No. 139 =============> No. 124 (The French Open doubles champion with Kristina Mladenovic gets to the Ilkley final – with a Wimbledon main draw WC on the line – but falls in three to Niculescu. She had to get to London in a hurry to play the qualifying on Tuesday).

ON THE DOWNSWING

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Becoming a “huge deal” has been a challenge for Naomi Osaka in 2019. She lost the top spot in the rankings to Ashleigh Barty after Birmingham.

Naomi Osaka (JPN): No. 1 =============> No. 2 (After being No. 1 every single week since winning the Australian Open – despite a few close challenges from other top players that didn’t pan out – the Japanese star drops to No. 2 after Barty won Birmingham. Osaka lost in desultory fashion to Yulia Putintseva in the second round).

Camila Giorgi (ITA): No. 39 =============> No. 41 (She’s back for Eastbourne, but the Italian has played very little the last few months).

Mihaela Buzarnescu (ROU): No. 42=============> No. 47

Alison Riske (USA): No. 49 =============> No. 54

Tatjana Maria (GER): No. 54=============> No. 65

Eugenie Bouchard (CAN): No. 78 =============> No. 79

Taylor Townsend (USA): No. 109 =============> No. 120

Samantha Stosur (AUS): No. 115 =============> No. 132 (The 35-year-old qualified at Eastbourne, and will be looking to improve that ranking significantly).

Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK): No. 84 =============> No. 141 (The graceful 30-year-old Slovak, a Wimbledon semifinalist two years ago, reached the final at Surbiton to start the grass season but has won just one match since. A year ago, she reached the Birmingham final, beating Karolina Pliskova, Kristina Mladenovic and Barbora Strycova but losing to Petra Kvitova in the final).

Dalila Jakupovic (SLO): No. 120 =============> No. 143

Johanna Larsson (SWE): No. 147 =============> No. 165 (On the plus side, she and Kirsten Flipkens won the doubles in Mallorca. On the minus side, the Swede has played the main draw at Wimbledon eight times in singles and has never won a match. In two previous tries in the qualifying, she won one match. So Larsson will be there, but probably doesn’t have huge expectations).

(For the complete WTA picture, click here).

No. 1 Osaka goes adidas =====> Nike

Nike is saving itself a fair bit of coin by not having Roger Federer in the stable any more.

And it’s made its first big splash, by luring world No. 1 Naomi Osaka over to the Swoosh side.

No doubt it’s a big, lucrative contract. And it adds another top brand to Osaka’s other sponsorship deals. Over the six months since she shocked Serena Williams and won the US Open, Osaka has cashed in big time.

The announcement is made even more interesting by the fact that the last we really heard about it – after the US Open – it appeared Osaka would stay with adidas.

She was reportedly “set” to sign a “record-breaking” extension to her adidas deal that would pay her a reported $8.5 million a year

That trial balloon was later debunked by the Japan Times. That newspaper indicated that she was still up for auction, and that Uniqlo (which obviously made the most sense) and Nike were in the running.

No doubt the bidding was fast and furious. 

And Nike won.

In retrospect, when we noted that it was interesting that the photo Osaka posted from an ESPN The Magazine story featured a logo-less, generic outfit a few weeks ago – it was more interesting than we knew.

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Big addition to the Nike team

The press-release quote from Osaka:

“I’m proud to become a member of the Nike family and excited about getting involved in all of the opportunities Nike has to offer. Nike has a legendary track record of writing history and I look forward to being a part of those moments for many years to come.”

The quote from Amy Montagne, “GM of Global Categories” for Nike: 

 “As we continue to inspire millions of athletes to chase their crazy dreams, Naomi is an incredible talent to add to our roster and help drive our commitment to inspiring a new generation of female athletes. We are thrilled to have her join our team.”

As usual with Nike, no mention of the length of the deal (or, obviously, the dollars involved).

The time frame of the rollout (including Osaka’s Tweet, below), tells you it was aimed at the Asian market. It’s Friday morning over there, but very late Thursday night on the east coast of the U.S. and late evening on the west coast.

And it’s the middle of the night in Europe.

Whither Uniqlo?

Given the reportedly insane amount of dollars Uniqlo will be giving Federer over the next decade, you’d think Uniqlo would have won this bidding war.

The fact that Uniqlo founder and chairman Tadashi Yanai is reportedly worth $23 billion and can buy any toys he wants only adds to that notion.

And it’s especially true with the Olympics coming up next year in Tokyo.

But perhaps Yanai isn’t as big on women’s tennis as he is on men’s tennis.

It will also be interesting to see whether Osaka, who will be big in the Asian market, will have the same exemption China’s Li Na had. Li was allowed to wear all of her other sponsorship patches on her Nike gear, unlike Nike’s other athletes – including Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams.

(Ben Rothenberg with the answer to that question:)

The promotional photo Nike released with its announcement (not surprisingly), contains no logos.

Osaka won’t play again until the Stuttgart event in 2 1/2 weeks. So we’ll see then.

Hopefully they will come up with some bespoke outfits for her, befitting a world No. 1. With the short turnaround time (given the average 18 months needed to design and produce a clothing line), it might take awhile for “Osaka Nike” to make a splash.

She looked terrific in the adidas – notably this year, with Nike’s main lines a design most tennis fans were tired of by the second week of the Australian Open.

Nike
Three years ago in Charleston, Osaka (wearing adidas) had just broken into the top 100 with a third-round result in Miami. She won two qualifying matches, but lost 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 to Louise Chirico in the first round of the main draw. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Adidas left out

It’s a common thing in tennis that the companies that sign players early in their careers, giving them money, and equipment (or clothing) long before they make it, are left in the cold when a player really does make it big.

Osaka has been wearing adidas since 2015 (she wore Yonex clothing in 2014).

Her deal expired at the end of 2018.

Nike
Osaka at the Granby Challenger in July, 2015 (her first year with adidas. She was ranked No. 159 at the time. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

That’s four years. And when she first began wearing it, Osaka was ranked outside the top 250. Not many people knew who she was.

Clearly she collected some nice bonuses from the company over the last few years, as her ranking rose to the top.

But all of that doesn’t matter a bit.

Once the players get to the top, and the big-dollar offers come, that’s pretty much it. The numbers and term will likely leak out eventually. But given the number that was floated for the adidas non-deal last September, it’s likely more than that.

We’ve seen it with players who have even changed racquets for the dough. That is a far more significant thing, in terms of their actual tennis, than what they’re wearing.

And we’ve seen some of them struggle and lose a big part of a season making the adjustment.

This change, obviously, is easier.

There’s no loyalty. But that’s the business.

If someone offers you a huge cheque, you’d be a fool not to take it.

Naomi Osaka takes the stairs (video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – That No. 1 ranking and those back-to-back majors don’t just come by showing up.

So here’s Naomi Osaka doing the stairs in the main stadium earlier in the week, as she got ready to defend her first career title.

It was a year ago that Osaka, then ranked No. 44 after starting the year at No. 70, ran the table in the desert.

She shocked Maria Sharapova in the first round, and only lost one set through to the title, winning the final over another neophyte at that level, Daria Kasatkina.

A year later, she showed a few nerves as she headed out to that same stadium court to play her first match Saturday night.

As it was, she faced Kristina Mladenovic, who had defeated her in her first match in Dubai. That was the first – and until Saturday had been the only – match Osaka played since winning the Australian Open.

So it was nervy on a lot of levels. But even though she was broken the first time she served for the match in the second set, she got through 6-3, 6-4.

Next up is Collins

Osaka will face No. 25 seed Danielle Collins (a surprise semifinalist here a year ago) in the third round.

Collins had two first-round losses to show for her efforts after reaching the semifinals in Melbourne. But she got things back on the right track with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Kirsten Flipkens to open her tournament.

Here’s Osaka doing the stairs with trainer Abul Sillah – the funniest part is her father pulling a Rosie Ruiz (Google it).

Sloane Stephens was on the court practicing at the time – a former Sillah player. She was giving him the gears pretty good as he impressively kept up with the much younger Osaka.

 

 

Osaka goes to Williams alumni society for coach

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Once again, Naomi Osaka has culled the Williams sisters alumni society in her search for a new coach.

And she has come up with Jermaine Jenkins.

The 34-year-old American most recently was the hitting partner for Venus. He also is the brother of Jarmere, Serena Williams’s current hitting partner.

Former coach Sascha Bajin was the longtime hitting partner for Serena before he got the big gig with the up-and-coming Osaka.

So if being a hitting partner to a top player so often seemed like a gig that had little opportunity for advancement, the current world No. 1 and US Open and Australian Open champion has singlehandedly changed the narrative.

Jenkins joined Team Venus Williams in June, 2015. But at the end of the 2019 season, he found out his services were no longer required. Williams also let loose her coach of 11 years, David Witt.

Witt is not coaching anyone at the moment. But Jenkins bounced back quickly.

In January, he was named the USTA’s national coach for women’s tennis, based out of the federation’s national campus outside Orlando, Fla. 

Short turnaround for new coach

alumni
It’s so new, Jenkins hasn’t even updated his Twitter yet.

After the seemingly acrimonious parting with Bajin, shortly after the two combined for Osaka’s second consecutive Grand Slam title, Osaka headed to the Premier tournament in Dubai with only a coach from the Japanese federation as support.

She lost her first match to Kristina Mladenovic. And clearly, she was not in the best of spirits. The news that she had sacked a coach who had brought her from No. 68 to No. 1 in a little over a year obviously attracted a lot of notice. Perhaps more than she had expected.

Osaka wanted to have someone in place before the all important American swing through Indian Wells and Miami.

The 21-year-old won the BNP Paribas Open a year ago, in a shocker at the time. So she comes to the desert as the defending champion. 

Naomi Osaka and Sascha Bajin part ways

Brother act back in the game

Jermaine Jenkins will be reunited on Tour with brother Jarmere, who began working for Serena in Dec. 2017.

Jarmere Jenkins joins Team Serena

Jermaine Jenkins was a standout at Clemson University, an all-American, captain of his team and team MVP.

AlumniHe also earned a B.A. in Business Administration and Management.

There’s no indication in any of the stories out there what Jenkins will do with his current position with the USTA. He’s been on the job less than two months. 

There isn’t even any confirmation about whether this is a guaranteed, full-time gig, or a trial. So we don’t even know if he’s not simply taking a leave from his current job to test the water on this U.S. swing. We’re efforting on getting more details.

But either way, there’s a certain irony there.

Osaka – in retrospect – was definitely a player the USTA let get away. Imagine if the USTA had a 21-year-old No. 1, who has won the last two Grand Slam titles, in their stable.

But Osaka didn’t play junior tennis. And big tennis federations are most definitely inflexible to anything other than the regimented tradition path.

So by the time she was on their radar, (according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, at age 16) she already had gone to the Japanese federation to help support her budding career.

Now, she’s taken the USTA’s new women’s coach.

Naomi Osaka and Sascha Bajin part ways

The one thing you can’t predict about the WTA is … what’s going to happen next.

New No. 1 Naomi Osaka rose to the top of the women’s tennis universe, after winning back-to-back Grand Slam titles with new coach Sascha Bajin.

Well, on Monday – just two weeks after that second title – it’s over.

Osaka announced via social media that she and Bajin have split.

That would have to go down as an … unexpected bit of news.

When Bajin came on board in Dec. 2017, Osaka was ranked No. 68 and had yet to win a title. In just over a year, she has won three – two Slams, and a Premier Mandatory – and risen to No. 1.

No doubt there was plenty going on behind the scenes, for something like that to happen.

Bajin was an out of the box choice at the time because of his lack of “official” coaching experience at the top level. But it proved to be a great fit with Osaka. He was so positive, that it balanced out the natural negativity the young Osaka displayed.

No word yet on what Osaka’s setup will look like going forward.

It’s worth noting that the current title holders at the four Grand Slams – Simona Halep at the French Open, Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon and Osaka for the other two – no longer are working with the coaches who got them there.

In the meantime – in that definitive move that kids do – Osaka has unfollowed Bajin on Instagram in recent weeks. And he has unfollowed her.

And as he states on his Instagram account that he’s sponsored by Yonex and Nissin – two of Osaka’s major sponsors – it will be worth seeing what happens with that.

It’s a pretty curt adios, given all they accomplished together.

Bajin didn’t make any official pronouncement of his own, for whatever that’s worth. He merely replied to her Tweet.

During the trophy ceremony after her Australian Open victory, Osaka did not mention Bajin by name; she thanked her team as a collective.

That wouldn’t necessarily mean anything, though. Osaka joked that she had studied her notes before coming up to make the speech, but that she had forgotten most of “what she was supposed to say.”

In retrospect, her “Thanks to Sascha for hitting with me” comment in Melbourne was a little … dismissive. But only if you micro-analyze Osaka’s words. That’s a slippery slope because she’s definitely an unorthodox thinker.

The immediate reaction made it seem as though Bajin was the John Wooden of tennis. In fact, it was his first WTA coaching gig after multiple gigs as a very good hitting partner to top players. In terms of his long-term career prospects, Osaka may well have done as much for Bajin as he did for her.

Because he’ll always have this on his resumé now. And you’d think it would have established him in the mix, whenever a coaching opening comes up.

Big picture, hopefully it will encourage more female players to think out of the box a little, when looking for that good fit that often seems so elusive on the WTA Tour.

The two had a bet riding on the tournament. Bajin either had to cut his hair or dye it. “He doesn’t want to cut it, so he’ll have to dye it,” Osaka said in an interview after her win – suggesting pink as the appropriate color.

On the plus side, he won’t have to do that now.

In a battle of favorites, Osaka prevails in Oz Open final

MELBOURNE, Australia – Other than the reality that there would, literally, be a loser in this Australian Open women’s singles final, there were no losers.

For fans of women’s tennis – of tennis – there was massive appeal in either new champion.

And the fact that this new champion would also become the new world No. 1 just added to the stakes.

For Petra Kvitova, just getting back to a major final for the first time in nearly five years was a win, given what she’d been though.

For Naomi Osaka, just 21 and already under such tremendous pressure on and off the court, it was an opportunity to win a second straight Grand Slam title. And this time, it would come without all of the collateral baggage of that infamous US Open finale.

In the end, after a few dramatic twists and turns, it was the Japanese star who closed out a 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 victory that sealed both her second major, and the top spot in the rankings on Monday.

Osaka will have done it by winning just three tournaments. But they are three big ones: Indian Wells last March, the US Open, and now, the Australian Open.

Imperial Djokovic wins 7th Australian Open

Flinching at the finish line

She was as poised as you could ask for – for most of the first two sets.

Until she had to win that final point.

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Osaka after her victory, as she tried to take it all in.

And then, Osaka stuttered.

She had love-40 – three match points, on Kvitova’s serve at 3-5 in the second set. And she couldn’t win one of them although, as she said later, those opportunities came on her opponent’s serve.

The Czech lefty, who had sprayed too many balls for the first set and a half, tied down her sails, got her legs moving again and shut off the freebie pipeline just as Osaka began feeling it.

You could see Osaka’s level of agitation rise with every miss.

The next thing you know, Kvitova had won four consecutive games and the second set, and sent Osaka to the ladies’ room to reset.

Tears in her eyes, she left the court with her towel over her head. It was almost as if she was making sure she kept all those negative thoughts contained, took them off the court with her, and dumped them in the loo.

“I was thinking that if I turn it around, probably it’s on my side. In the end, it wasn’t … I think that for her, she came back and played better game. I don’t know. She left. She went (to) the toilet. I was before there as well. There is nothing really special,” said Kvitova, who even in her disappointment could laugh. “Yeah, maybe she calmed down a bit.”

Kvitova extricated herself from another love-40 situation down 2-4 in the third set. But she could never recuperate an early break.

And this time, Osaka closed it out.

“In the third set of the match today, I literally tied to turn off all my feelings. So that’s why I wasn’t yelling as much in the third set,” Osaka said. “I felt like I was a robot, kind of hollow in a way, and was just executing my orders. But when it got towards the end, I started to realize how big the situation was, and I think I started yelling ‘C’mon’ again.”

Tears of disappointment

Osaka
There were a lot of emotions during the trophy presentation.

Even as she slowly walked to the net, and reached over to give Osaka a hug, you could see the tears in Kvitova’s huge blue eyes.

There was no point in even hiding the disappointment.

She had come so close. She had fought so hard throughout the Australian summer. And she fell just short.

As she spoke, with her friend Li Na nearby to hand the Daphne Akhurst Trophy to her opponent, her voice wavered.

She addressed her team, and the crowd responded with a wave of applause.

“Thank you for everything, but mostly, thank you for sticking with me, even we didn’t know if I would able to hold the racket again,” she said. “You were there every single day supporting me, and staying positive for me, which I really needed.”

Later, Kvitova said she it might take awhile to get over this one.

“When I look back, I did have my chances in the first set  … Did have few break points. I don’t think I played something really badly, but I just think I should maybe go a little bit more aggressive one or two rallies.,” Kvitova said. “I really fight back in the second set. I’m proud of myself in that case. And, yeah, the third set was just one break. That’s how the tennis is. It’s the final.”

For Osaka, a big blur

Osaka

Osaka’s reaction after the victory was to get to her chair, lean over, and put her pink adidas visor over her face.

Meanwhile, in her very full supporters’ box, a lot of very happy, incidental people were jumping up and down and hugging each other. Osaka had no family members in the box; no one who has been on this journey with her from the get-go.

Her coach of a little over a year, Sascha Bajin, and trainer were there. But Osaka is a corporation now, and it was very much a corporate box.

“I don’t know. I thought the match was still going on, and I felt like I was in a state of shock during the whole trophy presentation,” she said later during a television interview with new host broadcaster Channel 9.

“Of course  I felt very disappointed and sad when I had those three match points. I tried to tell myself there’s nothing I can do about it, but you always have these doubts,” she added. “I told myself it’s a final.  I’m playing against Petra and she’s a great champion.  I can’t let myself act … immature in a way? I’m grateful to be here, so I had to act that way.”

A question about the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year, and how she was likely to be the face of it, was me with a “Yikes.”

“Hopefully, for their sake, they don’t do that,” she said.

But with two majors and the No. 1 ranking three months after her 21st birthday, who knows how big she might be in another 18 months?

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve just finished playing my match. For me, maybe if I see my sister, I can say, ‘Guess who’s the number one tennis player? Me!’  Maybe then,” she said.

For Kvitova, now 28, it’s back to the No. 2 spot in the rankings. She first reached that penultimate slot – her career high – in Oct., 2011 at age 21. She had won her first major that summer at Wimbledon and then wrapped up the year-end finals that month.

That so-far elusive top spot is very close. She could have grabbed it with a victory Saturday night. Still, she has a lot to look forward to in 2019 after such a strong start. 

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.

champion
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.