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Analysis: In drama-filled match, Naomi Osaka shows her mettle with historic win over Serena Williams

by Joel Tansey

Staff writer

Naomi Osaka fired an unreturnable serve, pulled her visor down over her eyes and strolled to the net to hug her childhood idol.

For the first time on a drama-filled Saturday evening in New York, the 20-year-old looked overwhelmed.

Playing in her first major final against the legendary Serena Williams, an opponent and a stage she said she had dreamed about for years, Osaka looked the part of a seasoned veteran in taking apart the American 6-2, 6-4, to win the U.S. Open and become the first Japanese to win a grand slam singles title.

Osaka showed she wouldn’t be intimidated by the six-time U.S. Open champion from the start and before the more than 20,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium had time to fully settle into their seats, she had broken Williams twice.

Osaka produced just five unforced errors in the first set and breezed to a comfortable 6-2 score in just over half an hour.

With Serena serving at 15-0 in the first game of the second set, Osaka showed Williams that, if she was going to get back into the match, she would be climbing uphill.

Seven shots into the rally, Williams hit a hard, precise cross-court backhand that looked to give her a 30-0 lead. It was the kind of shot that usually preceded a fist pump and a scream of “Come on!” for the 23-time major champion.

But Osaka had an answer.

Lunging with one hand on her racket, she made a wild stab at the ball — a desperate attempt to keep it in play. Across the net, Williams was advancing, preparing to smash home any weak return her opponent could manage.

But Osaka’s return sailed to within an inch of the baseline, forcing the American to retreat and play an awkward lob of her own.

Osaka was suddenly back in control of the point. Williams made an error on her next shot and slammed the ball into the ground. It was a sign of the frustration to come.

The next game, after her coach Patrick Mouratoglou seemingly gestured a piece of strategic advice to her from the stands — strictly forbidden at grand slams, Williams was given a violation warning and got into her first dispute with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.

Up 3-1, Williams gifted Osaka a break with a series of errors and smashed her racket, leading to violation No. 2 and costing her a point.

Williams then began to unravel, leading her to further berate Ramos in the chair and eventually leading to a final violation that cost her a full game.

Meanwhile, Osaka went about her business, appearing to shut out any distractions coming from the other side of the net or the pro-Williams crowd.

The pressure of such a stage has gotten the best of many great players in the past — Martina Hingis, Simona Halep and Marin Cilic to name a few.

You can add Williams’ name to that list following Saturday’s meltdown, but not Osaka’s.

During her teary on-court comments after the match, Osaka’s shy and awkward personality was on full display through her short answers. Then she nearly dropped the trophy.

But like she did countless times throughout the two-week tournament in Flushing Meadows, New York, she recovered.

She adjusted her grip, held the trophy above her head, and seemingly let reality sink in for the first time.

Naomi Osaka: U.S. Open champion.