At just 17 years of age, Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title at the 1999 U.S. Open.
Fifteen months younger than her sister Venus, Serena did what big sis failed to do in the 1997 tournament and topped World No. 1 Martina Hingis.
At the time, the court at the roofless Arthur Ashe Stadium was green. Tactics and overall craftiness, rather than pure power, dominated the women’s game and had made Hingis a five-time Grand Slam champion. Serena’s once-signature beaded braids, which would occasionally come loose and scatter onto the court, were out in full force. And in Japan, Naomi Osaka was still a month away from her second birthday.
But according to a recent article in The New York Times, her father, drawing inspiration from the path the Williams’ sisters took to success, had already decided that he, too, could take his daughters Naomi and Mari to the top of the women’s game.
Nearly two decades later, Ashe’s court is blue and has a retractable roof. Power and strength reign supreme. Leonard Francois did, indeed, coach his daughters into the professional ranks. And Serena long ago ditched the beads and is now on the cusp of tying Margaret Court for first all-time with 24 major singles titles.
Standing in her way is Osaka, now 20, and on track to become the sport’s next superstar.
Adding consistency to her well-established power game, she has looked the part of a young Serena in dropping just a single set on her way to her first Grand Slam final.
And, by her own admission, at least part of what’s pushed her to within one win of the biggest title of her career has been the prospect of playing Serena.
She said as much in her postmatch interview when asked how she was able to save 13 break points during her semifinal encounter with Madison Keys on Thursday.
“It feels a little bit surreal,” she later said at a news conference. “Even when I was a little kid I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final at a Grand Slam.”
Perhaps sensing that the grandeur of the moment could get away from her on Saturday, she added: “I shouldn’t really think of her as my idol I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
They have played once before, earlier this year in Miami, with Osaka besting Serena in straight sets.
While that matchup might give Osaka a measure of confidence and will surely help her keep her nerves as she faces her idol, the result can more or less be thrown out the window — Serena was playing just her fourth match since returning from a 13-month absence due to her pregnancy.
So, can Osaka pull off the upset and become Japan’s first singles slam winner?
Steady, error-free tennis could be enough if Serena is off her game, but playing in front of her home crowd and with a record in her sights, that’s an unlikely prospect.
An all-out slugfest from the baseline seems like a dangerous proposition as well. Osaka might have power to spare, but Serena more or less invented that brand of tennis. That strategy would mean playing the match on the American’s terms and she’s unlikely to blink.
Instead, the Japanese No. 1 will need to pick her spots wisely. She shouldn’t be afraid to get into longer rallies — that’s where she can use her youth to her advantage — but she also shouldn’t cower at the thought of making aggressive plays to end points quickly with her booming forehand.
Clean winners from a neutral baseline position, the kind that Serena has made her whole career, could leave the 36-year-old wondering if she has enough. Those will be the points that let her, and the tennis world, know that Osaka has arrived.
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