A win for Serena would cap one of sport's greatest comebacks. For Osaka, it's a chance to take down her idol. 

By Stanley Kay
September 07, 2018

NEW YORK — In March, even after beating Serena Williams in straight sets in the opening round of the Miami Open, Naomi Osaka still seemed awed by her childhood idol.

“She’s the main reason I started playing tennis,” she said after her 6-3, 6-2 win. “I just wanted her after the match to know who I am.”

If Williams didn’t know Osaka then, she certainly does now. They haven’t played since their match in Key Biscayne—the only career meeting between the two thus far—but they’ll face off again Saturday on the biggest of stages: the U.S. Open final.

Williams, the No. 17 seed, reached the final after topping 19th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0, in Thursday’s first semifinal. Following that match, which saw Williams win 12 of the final 13 games after falling behind 0-2, Osaka topped American Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4, to set up an enticing finale between the sport’s greatest-ever player and one of its brightest young stars.

Osaka, 20, wasn’t born when Williams, now 36, made her professional debut in 1994 as a 14-year-old. She was just a year old when Williams won her first major at the 1999 U.S. Open. Nearly two decades later, Williams is aiming for a her 24th Grand Slam singles title—which would tie Margaret Court’s record—while Osaka is playing in her first major final. She'd never been past the fourth round of a Slam before this magical run here in New York.

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Over the last two weeks, Osaka, the No. 20 seed, has dominated her opponents in Serena-esque fashion. She’s dropped just one set, in the fourth round against Aryna Sabalenka; before that, she beat her second-round opponent, Julia Glushko, 6-2, 6-0 before pulverizing Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-0, 6-0 in less than an hour. She reached the semifinals with a comfortable 6-1, 6-1 victory over Lesia Tsurenko that lasted all of 57 minutes.

Remarkably, despite her youth, Osaka rarely seems unnerved by circumstances. Thursday’s match, her first major semifinal and her first night match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, was no exception. Entering the semifinal, Osaka was 0-3 against Keys, a finalist here last year, and their only previous match at the U.S. Open had been a disaster: In the third round in 2016, Osaka led 5-1 in the third set before Keys rallied to win the decider in a tiebreaker, a crushing defeat that brought an 18-year-old Osaka to tears.

This time, Osaka took control of the match and never relinquished it. Keys managed 13 break point opportunities…and Osaka saved them all. “I felt like if I could break, maybe I could get back into it,” Keys said. “You’re in the match and you think, OK, she’s going to let up eventually.

“She didn’t.”

How did Osaka manage to remain locked in? Naturally, her idol played a role: “This is going to sound really bad,” she said in an on-court interview after the match, “but I was just thinking I really want to play Serena.”

Be careful what you wish for. Williams, who lost the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber in July, is playing her best tennis since giving birth to her daughter last September. She looked unsteady early in Thursday’s match, dropping her serve in the opening game with four unforced errors. The fourth game of the first set, with Sevastova serving up 2-1, proved pivotal. After Sevastova saved a break point at 30-40, Williams saved two game points: first, after an eight-shot baseline exchange, Sevastova’s drop shot failed to clear the net; two points later, Williams struck a forehand winner down the line after a short flurry of groundstrokes. After Sevastova saved another break point, Williams got back on serve when Sevastova netted another drop shot attempt.

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Williams would only lose one game thereafter, when Sevastova held to get to 3-5. The second set, a 6-0 thrashing, lasted just 27 minutes. 

“I started playing a little bit worse and worse,” Sevastova said. “But she was getting better.”

This season, Williams has struggled to maintain the match-to-match consistency that allowed her to dominate this era of women’s tennis. But she’s managed to compile a 15-1 record at Grand Slams this year, not including a walkover defeat due to injury in the fourth round at Roland Garros. And in Flushing Meadows, the six-time U.S. Open champion has rounded into her best form of the year. 

On Thursday, Williams—who only allowed two break points all match, both in the opening game—played aggressively, winning 24 of 28 points at the net and finishing the match with 31 winners. In Osaka, she’ll face a more assertive baseliner and perhaps her greatest challenge of the tournament.

“If she plays like she did tonight,” Keys said of Osaka, “she can definitely give Serena a run for her money.”  

In the grand scheme of things, Osaka is only just getting started. She won her first title this spring at Indian Wells, and when she takes the court Saturday, she’ll become the first Japanese woman reach the final of a major in the Open Era. But there won’t be any amicable passing of any torch on Saturday. Williams is only getting better: She’s in her second consecutive Grand Slam final despite still not feeling 100% after giving birth. It’s a new beginning for her, too.

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Williams didn’t play particularly well against Osaka in Miami; it was just her fourth singles match after returning from maternity leave. “It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said. “I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation…hopefully I won’t play like that again.”

Winning a Grand Slam is always gratifying. But for both players, a victory on Saturday would be particularly sweet, for entirely different reasons. Osaka could lift her first major trophy with a win over an icon. Williams, a year after nearly dying during childbirth, could celebrate her first Grand Slam with Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr.—at least her first with her out of the womb. It’s a dream final.

And speaking of dreams: Rarely do they pan out the way we envision them as children, but Osaka’s—playing Serena Williams in a final of a Grand Slam—will become reality on Saturday.  It’s unlikely to be the straight-set drubbing that we saw in Miami, but after her latest convincing triumph, Osaka’s confidence is soaring. Then again, even in that reverie, she didn’t lack self-belief: “I don’t dream to lose.”

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