The SI tennis crew discuss keys for each player and make a prediction for Saturday's final.
Saturday's U.S. Open final will feature two stars in very different places in their respective careers.
Serena Williams is playing for her 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Margaret Court's all-time record, and seeking to put an exclamation point on one of the best comeback stories in sports. Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old who is the first Japanese woman to play in a major final in the Open Era, is seeking her first Slam title in a match against her childhood idol.
The stage is set for a fantastic spectacle on Arthur Ashe. For a full preview, we've got you covered here.
We asked our SI Tennis crew three simple questions relating to the match. Here's how they responded.
What is the key to the match for Serena?
Jon Wertheim: Be Serena. She is the superior player. She is—to an almost comical degree—the more experienced player, especially in matches of this magnitude. Osaka hits a brutal ball and has been a revelation this event, but she's essentially mini-Serena. There's no tricky contrast or lefty look or personal animus to complicate matters. If you had told Serena before the tournament that would have to beat Anastasija Sevastova and Naomi Osaka in her final two matches to win her 24th Slam, she would have twirled in her tutu. If she remembers to pack her serve, doesn't let the match turn into a foot race, and hits with enough depth to pin Osaka beyond the baseline, she ought to prevail.
Stanley Kay: Serena’s serve will be critical. If she serves well, particularly on the first serve, that will put pressure on Osaka to avoid costly errors when the ball is on her racket. Against Madison Keys, Osaka saved every break point, but she also allowed 13 break point opportunities. Not ideal! That’s not going to cut it against Serena, especially if her serve is firing.
Jamie Lisanti: Serena Williams is a 36-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam champion who has been here many times before. While Osaka has really excelled in this tournament and has shown fans and her competitors that she is capable of winning major titles, it would take a lot for her to win on Saturday. Serena has more experience—especially in this particular scenario, post-maternity leave, after losing in the Wimbledon final—and I just don’t see her letting another one slip through this season. As she did against Sevastova, coming to the net, I have confidence that Serena will adjust her game accordingly to handle Osaka’s power. As always, her serve will also be a key to the match—she leads the tournament with 64 aces and she’s won nearly 80% of points on her first serve through six rounds. While Serena’s fitness (and her serve) were two big factors in question in her return, especially in her only meeting against Osaka in Miami, her play in New York has shown improvement in both areas. And Serena will also have to build off the crowd in New York, which I expect to be buzzing and roaring with overwhelming support for the American on Saturday.
Daniel Rapaport: It's a bit odd to say this about a woman who's accomplished as much as Serena, but she needs to manage her nerves in the early stages of the match. Williams has an unbelievable opportunity to win No. 24 in her home country against a player making her first Slam final appearance (let's also not forget that Osaka hadn't been past the fourth round of a major before this tournament). To say the stars are aligned is an understatement. She came out somewhat flat against both Pliskova (in the quarters) and on Thursday night against Sevastova; if she does that against Osaka, she could find herself down a double break. She needs to come out firing and on the front foot, because Osaka needs badly to get off to a good start to build belief that she can pull off the upset.
What is the key to the match for Osaka?
JW: 1. Managing the moment. She has never played a match of this magnitude. Use that as an advantage, not an impediment.
2. Recall that she beat Serena when they played earlier this year. Same surface. Same time zone.
3. Lean on the staff. She benefits from a coach (Sascha Bajin) who spent years in the Williams camps and knows to activate the trip wires.
4. Stay in this zone. With the exception of one set against Aryna Sabalenka—another forceful 20-year-old—Oskaka has been dazzling in this event, barely surrendering games, much less sets.
SK: For Osaka to pull off the upset, she’ll have to continue playing with the confidence she’s shown the last two weeks. The bright lights of Ashe didn’t seem to faze her against Madison Keys, and she’ll need to approach Saturday like it’s any other match. Of course that’s far easier said than done—this is the U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, so it’s about as far from any other match as one can get. But her path to victory starts with the right mentality.
JL: First things first: Naomi Osaka can’t get used to fending off every break point in a match. After saving all 13 of Madison Keys’ attempts to break her serve in the semifinals on Thursday night, Osaka will more than likely see Serena convert on a break point opportunity in Saturday’s final. But that’s the key for the 20-year-old: remaining patient throughout the match, even when Serena breaks, while continuing to apply pressure with her serve. In one instance at the start of the second set against Keys, Osaka saved six break points, sealing a 2-0 lead with two straight aces. It will take some magic from the powers that be, but if Osaka can stay composed and not let the moment overwhelm her—and somehow, some way Serena’s nerves affect her play—we could be looking at a maiden Grand Slam champion.
DR: It starts and ends with belief, and belief hinges on how she starts the match. If Osaka falls behind, it would be all too easy to accept that she's had a fantastic tournament but that this is Serena's time to make history. She needs to get her teeth into the match early and not let Serena get ahead. She has all the raw tools necessary to win this match, and she's been the best player in the tournament thus far. She must believe that and play like it from the first point.
Who wins the match?
JW: You have to go with sentimentality as well as experience and pick Serena. At Wimbledon she had six matches in her and, you sensed, simply didn't have the wattage for a seventh. This tournament is an altogether different story...And, having said that, this event has been Osaka's much-anticipated arrival. If she continued this tear and outhits Serena (putting the GOAT to pasture, as it were) would it surprise you?
SK: I love the way Osaka is playing right now, and I’m tempted to pick the upset. But I’ll take Serena in three sets.
JL: Is Serena playing her best tennis ever right now? No, but I don’t think she’ll need it against Osaka. She will be tested, no doubt, but with the crowd behind her, with everything she’s been through in the past year, with Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record dangling within reach once again, Serena will not falter. Osaka is a future Grand Slam champion. But Serena takes home the trophy in two sets on Saturday.
DR: Not to brag, but I was the only one of this crew to pick Serena to win the tournament before it started. So do I stick with my gut or go contrarian again?
Sticking with the gut. Serena in three very tight sets. I think we're in for a classic.