Naomi Osaka grew up idolizing Serena Williams but never got her autograph. “You know how there are kids that are really close?” Osaka said of fans who crowd around athletes and clamor for signatures. “I don’t think I was ever close enough to ask her.”
Osaka will be within easy reach of Williams on Saturday during the U.S. Open women’s final, but requesting a souvenir will be the last thing on her mind.
Osaka, an emerging star who has become as famous for her unspoiled nature as her poised and powerful game, stands in the way of Williams’ quest to win a 24th Grand Slam singles title and equal Margaret Court’s record. This will be Williams’ second attempt to tie Court: At Wimbledon, where a flood of upsets meant she didn’t have to face a seeded player until the semifinals, Williams reached the final but lost to Angelique Kerber in straight sets.
Williams has been in fine form at the U.S. Open, losing only one set and reeling off a tournament-leading 64 aces, including four aces in crushing Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in the semifinals on Thursday.
And she believes she hasn’t peaked yet. “This is just the beginning of my return. I’m still on the way up,” said Williams, who gave birth to a daughter last Sept. 1 and resumed competition in April. “There’s still much more that I plan on doing.”
Osaka knows that but hopes she can gain some insights from her coach, Sascha Bajin, who was Williams’ hitting partner for eight years. Osaka also will rely on the businesslike approach that fueled her 6-1, 6-1 quarterfinal romp over Lesia Tsurenko and allowed her to fight off 13 break points in her 6-2, 6-4 semifinal win over Madison Keys. Like Williams, Osaka has lost only one set here. The winner will earn $3.8 million.
“I really feel like I don’t want to overthink this match, so I’m not going to think that she’s so much better than she was in Miami,” Osaka said. “I’m just going to go out there and play.”
Williams, a six-time U.S. Open champion, became the oldest women’s Grand Slam singles champion when she prevailed at the 2017 Australian Open. The new standard would be 36 years and 349 days if she wins on Saturday.
After her match on Thursday, she was reluctant to discuss the historic implications of earning that 24th Slam singles title, apparently still remembering her loss at Wimbledon. “I’m just going to keep trying,” Williams said. “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll keep trying for the next one.”