“It’s like Serena Williams is playing the younger version of herself,” said the commentator during the sixth game of the US open women’s singles final. Naomi Osaka, all of 20 had just gone double break up over Serena and was fighting to hold serve with a stunning display of power and precision, reminiscent of the player across the net.
One of her stunning passing winners had elicited a racquet clap from an impressed Serena as well – a rare compliment given she was 1-4 down in the set.
But such was the game of the 20-year-old that despite everything that happened during the match, you would not forget the spunky youngster playing with the ease of a veteran in her first Major final.
Naomi Osaka, US Open champion, the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam and victor in a generational final. The Serena racquet clap may have been a symbolic passing of the torch; Osaka had earned it.
But this was before all hell broke loose on Arthur Ashe Stadium as Serena was giving a code violation: a point and then a game penalty that caused an uproar, with the chair umpire, tournament officials, the packed crowd and an enraged Serena involved.
But the one person who stayed calm and focussed through this all was the youngest of them all, and the eventual champion. She beat the six-time champion 6-2, 6-4 to win her first Major on her first attempt and denied Serena a record 24th Grand Slam. Her incredible composure through the chaos was as impressive as her balanced tennis.
Imagine being a 20-year-old, playing the biggest match of your career against the player who inspired you to pick up the sport. Imagine giving yourself a chance to win the match and then being faced with a such dramatic scenes and a partisan crowd.
Don’t meet your heroes, they say, but in Osaka’s case it was not completely true. Despite the ugly scenes, when she clinched match point, she got a warm hug and words of encouragement from Serena at the net.
But it was evident that the youngster was deeply affected by the moment, both the controversy and the magnitude of her own achievement. She tried visibly to keep a lid on her emotions, as she climbed up to her box and hugged her mother, as she buried her face in a towel before the trophy presentation and when the announcer was booed. But it was Serena, with her arm around the youngster’s shoulders, who said something that finally made the youngster smile.
Even when she lifted the trophy, it was hard for her to break out a grin or quip like the Osaka we have grown used to. She’s only 20 so it must not have been easy to control her emotions. But the one thing she controlled admirably was her tennis, right from the start when she broke Serena in the third game.
It is easy to say that Osaka was robbed of her moment but that is not true. Even before the code violation, it was Osaka who had the command over the match. It was the 20-year-old’s impressive control and effective shots that had dominated proceedings as she clinched the trophy.
And to say that that the Serena-chair umpire controversy overshadowed Osaka’s tennis triumph would be grossly unfair. Her sparkling style of tennis would have stood out, even without the game penalty, a style that is very much like Serena, in brawn and brain.
Modelled on Serena
Coached by Sacha Bajin, who has worked with Serena for eight years and 10 Slams, Osaka always had the game and the game plan to beat her idol. She had already done it in the first round at Miami, as the reigning Indian Wells champion, and she possessed all the tools to do it again.
In the Wimbledon final, the 36-year-old had leaked too many errors against Angelique Kerber and Osaka was similarly putting Serena’s serve under early pressure with counter-attack. The American’s own shaky serving didn’t help matters.
She got the first break in the third game as Serena committed a double fault on break point. She then consolidated the break with an ace and broke again for a handy 4-1 lead.
Then came the terrific sixth game where she staved off break point to all but seal the set. Here’s the clincher: Osaka won 50% of her return points, against the normally might serve of Serena.
Osaka was 40-15 up when Serena got the first violation and said the now-infamous words to umpire Carlos Ramos: “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.” Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou later admitted to his offence, but there is nothing to suggest Serena saw him.
A pumped-up Serena scored two great points then – a smash and a perfect drop shot to hold. And then came the game of the match – Serena’s only break – which gave a small glimpse of how the US Open final should have been.
The 20-year-old was 0-30 down on serve, fired a second serve ace to heat things up but still faced a break point.
The crowd was raucous and Osaka should have logically been affected, but she responded with a superb winner after a 19-shot rally. A monster serve, a forehand error, an ace, a backhand error, a body serve and, finally, Serena converted her fourth break point.
This was the game where we saw the two finalists at their peak. This is what Grand Slam finals are about.
But Serena could not consolidate and committed two double faults to bring it back on serve at 3-3 and it was all downhill from there. A game away from the end at 5-3, a furious Serena held serve but it was delaying the inevitable as Osaka had the championship minutes later.
Osaka’s bulldozing serve has been her biggest weapon – she saved 23 break points in the semi-final against Madison Keys – but it was her superb counter-attack from the baseline on return that made sure she was never out of the game. A page from Serena’s own book, much like a large part of the 20-year-old Japanese-Haitian’s career.
It is a known fact that her father followed Richard Williams’s model when he trained his two daughters. And the result was there for all to see – a generational talent coming good at 20 and beating the greatest of all times to win her first Major.
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