Naomi Osaka ready for defense of U.S. Open title

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Serena Williams has the U.S. Open spotlight as she chases tennis history, but a host of Grand Slam winners and high-ranked rivals are also taking aim at the title.

The 37-year-old American will be the focus of attention when the Flushing Meadows fortnight begins Monday with her first-round night match against Russian Maria Sharapova the most anticipated of the women’s openers.

“Of course I’m going to watch it,” said top-seeded defending champion Naomi Osaka, who beat Williams in last year’s U.S. Open final. “I think everyone in New York is going to watch it.

“I’m not that surprised that that happened, because at every Grand Slam there’s always some sort of drama. Like a first round. Like, oh my God. So this match just happens to be that for this tournament.”

Williams will try to capture her 24th Grand Slam singles title to match the all-time record set by Margaret Court.

Eighth-seeded Williams, who could meet second-seeded French Open champion Ashleigh Barty of Australia in the quarterfinals, has not won a Grand Slam since the 2017 Australian Open when she was pregnant, losing the U.S. Open final to Osaka last year amid controversy and the past two Wimbledon finals — including last month to Romania’s Simona Halep.

Barty, Osaka, Halep and Czech third seed Karolina Pliskova, seeking her first Grand Slam title, are among the foes trying to deny Williams yet again in a quest she insists doesn’t dominate her thoughts.

“I think it’s definitely meaningful, but at this point in my career, I just try to think of different things and even bigger goals — so it’s just like 24 is just a thing,” Williams said earlier this month.

“There are so much more important things in my life. And obviously tennis is super important to me … but yeah there are always other things in life, I feel, that are really big on my plate too.”

Williams has not played since retiring from the WTA Toronto final with back spasms, handing Canada’s Bianca Andreescu the title.

Osaka won last year’s final after Williams was given a game penalty by umpire Carlos Ramos, who U.S. Open officials have decided will not work on any match with Serena or Venus Williams at this year’s U.S. Open.

This time, Osaka has had a better run-up to the U.S. Open despite a first-round Wimbledon exit.

“Last year I lost three matches in a row before I came here, so I just wanted to get one match. Then it just kept building on from that,” she said. “This year I went to two quarter-finals back to back and I feel very confident about how I am right now.”

Halep, meanwhile, is living the dream after her Wimbledon triumph and the Romanian heads into the U.S. Open hoping for a new dawn at the season’s final Grand Slam after early exits in the last two years.

Halep scorched Williams 6-2, 6-2 in less than an hour in the Wimbledon final to add a second major title to her trophy cabinet after last year’s French Open crown.

The 27-year-old’s near-flawless display at the All England Club marked a spectacular return to form after her world ranking dropped from first to seventh between mid-January and July.

It’s been like a dream since I left (Wimbledon). Even now, I’m living the dream,” Halep, who credits her improved fortunes on the biggest stages to a more relaxed approach, told the WTA website.

“I felt positive and confident … like I reached my highest level of tennis. The first six months of this year were more relaxed because I was just trying to improve my game without thinking about the results.”