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.”
Williams made her professional debut in October 1995, two years before Osaka was born. They have faced each other once, in the second round at Miami in March this year, a relatively easy win for Osaka. But Williams is stronger and has far better timing and conditioning now. Those factors will make a big difference to Osaka. So might the fact that her first Grand Slam final appearance will leave her 30 behind Williams’ career Slam final appearances.
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.