“This is gonna sound really bad, but I was just thinking ‘I really wanna play Serena!’”
That’s what Naomi Osaka told a courtside reporter after her impressive 6-2 6-4 semi-final win over Madison Keys.
The spectre of playing the 23-time major winner in the final inspired the Japanese during her bruising encounter with Keys. 13 break points were fiercely defended by the 20-year-old as she booked a date with the greatest of them all on Saturday evening.
Does Osaka have a chance against Serena? Very much so, as Tim Henman might put it…
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 7, 2018
Don’t be fooled by Osaka’s shy demeanour in interviews, this young woman wants to reach the peak of the tennis world and will remove the obstacles in her way through measured, power tennis.
After a quiet start to the 2018 campaign, Osaka managed a run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, her best result at a grand slam to that point.
Her season and career truly burst into life in the Spring at the tour’s ‘fifth major’, Indian Wells.
Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina each fell to Osaka’s powerful serve and destructive forehand over the fortnight as Osaka captured her first WTA title.
Things slowed down for the Japanese afterwards but she has rediscovered her groove in Flushing Meadows.
She has weapons
Osaka is one inch taller than Serena at 5’ 11” and her height contributes to a formidable serve.
The 20th seed has struck 119 mph on her serve in New York and sits fourth on the overall aces count with 27. For comparison, Williams leads both lists with a fastest serve of 121 mph and 64 aces.
Osaka’s booming serve is backed up with an excellent forehand that she can use to create angles and finish rallies. Her backhand is solid and her movement has been excellent throughout the tournament. Against the thunderous ball striking of Keys in the last four, Osaka’s defence was particularly impressive.
On Saturday, Osaka will be able to rally with Williams and strike winners when the opportunities present themselves.
She won’t be tired
This US Open has seen Roger Federer, Sloane Stephens and many more players suffer in the sweltering conditions. Osaka’s journey has been different.
The 20-year-old flew through her first three matches. She only dropped five games to Laura Siegemund in round one, two games to Julia Glushko in round two, and double bageled poor Aliaksandra Sasnovich in round three.
Osaka’s biggest test came against Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round. The fast rising Belarusian snatched the middle set before a tight final set went the Japanese’s way.
Since that tussle, Osaka has returned to her straight sets routine. She recorded a 6-1 6-1 win over Lesia Tsurenko in the last eight and that 6-2 6-4 triumph over Keys in the semis.
Three of Osaka’s matches failed to reach an hour so she will have plenty of running left in her for Saturday evening.
She’s beaten Williams before
When I made the case for Angelique Kerber to beat Williams in the Wimbledon final, the German’s previous success over the American was an important consideration.
Osaka cannot boast of a victory in a grand slam final over Williams but she did beat the six-time US Open champion in their only meeting.
The pair met in Miami this year when Osaka was a comfortable winner 6-3 6-2. The match wasn’t particularly balanced as Osaka was fresh off her first title win in Indian Wells while Serena had just embarked on her comeback.
These past 2 weeks was a sound for all moms stay home and working you can do it you really can! I’m not any better or diff than any of you all. Your support has ment so much to me. Let’s keep making noise everyday in everything we do. #roadtoUSOpen pic.twitter.com/5OLYk1a6cK
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 16, 2018
The player that Osaka will battle with this Saturday is far stronger than the one she met in March, but their previous meeting must surely be a boon to the challenger.
After the semi-final with Keys, Osaka said “I really feel like I don’t want to overthink [the final], so I’m not going to think that she’s so much better than she was in Miami…I’m just going to go out there and play. Since I already know she’s a good player, I don’t want to be surprised if she plays better or not.”
How much better Williams plays will be the determining factor in the 2018 women’s final.
If Serena hits her peak, she is likely to win and claim a record equalling 24th grand slam title. If the American is not at her best, the first female Japanese major finalist could become her nation’s first singles grand slam champion too.