To win the US Open, Serena Williams will have to go through one of her first ‘children’
Saturday’s final will be a match between The Comeback Kid and Naomi Osaka, who modeled her career after the Williams sisters
The women’s US Open final Saturday has us wondering: Do goats ever kick their own kids to the curb?
We’ll find out soon enough. In the singles final Saturday, Serena Williams, 36, will once again face one of the women she and her sister inspired to enter the sport: Naomi Osaka.
A few days after Osaka was born in October 1997, Williams made her debut in the WTA rankings at No. 453. Now, Williams is etching a comeback from maternity leave after a harrowing postpartum experience while also gunning to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. To do it, she’ll have to beat a 20-year-old who was so awestruck the first time they met earlier this year at the Miami Open that Osaka simply captioned the experience, “Omg.”
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 21, 2018
There are a lot of head games in top-level tennis, but even for the veteran Williams, this is new territory. When she played Osaka earlier this year, it was her second tournament back from maternity leave, and she lost 6-3, 6-2.
“I mean, I was breastfeeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation,” Williams said in a news conference Thursday night after walloping Anastasija Sevastova in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-0. “It was what it was. I mean, hopefully I don’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
Saturday afternoon will mark Williams’ ninth finals appearance here and the first for Osaka, who played under stadium lights for the first time in her career in her semifinal match against Madison Keys on Thursday.
To beat Osaka, Williams could take inspiration from Cynthia Nixon’s character, Miranda, in Sex and the City. Discussing her fawning and much-younger boyfriend with Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda turned in one of her notable deadpans:
“He’s like a sweet little seal pup,” Carrie tells Miranda.
Miranda: “Yeah. That you sometimes want to club.”
Although Williams turned in the most impressive win of her comeback Thursday night, overwhelming Sevastova with unanswerable serves and mercilessly kicking back her drop shots, Williams said she’s only about 50 to 60 percent back to where she’d like to be. She’s still getting used to her post-pregnancy body.
“I’m definitely not there,” Williams said. “I don’t feel like me. I think it takes time. My mom said it takes, like, a full year to kind of get back. I’m at a full year now. … I actually weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, but it’s distributed differently now. My stomach is bigger, but it’s just so different, even though I’m less. I’m still waiting to get to be the Serena that I was, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be that way, physically, emotionally, mentally. But I’m on my way.”
Osaka makes no bones about being a Serena stan. After beating Keys, she directed a comment toward Williams in her on-court postmatch interview: “I love you.”
The Williams sisters were highly influential in the Osaka household, and the parallels are intentional. Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, fashioned himself into a Haitian Richard Williams, coaching Osaka and her sister, Mari, for the world stage. Now, Osaka’s coach is Sascha Bajin, who was Williams’ hitting partner for eight years.
Such is the price of longevity. Or, as Brad Pitt’s character in Mr. and Mrs. Smith put it after mowing over an ambitious newbie assassin with a minivan: “F—–s get younger every year.”
On Thursday, Osaka won 13 break points against Keys in a serious display of mettle. Her mantra is “WWSD?” or “What Would Serena Do?”
“I think if [Osaka] plays like she did tonight, she can definitely give Serena a run for her money,” Keys said. “It will be a really good match. I’m for sure going to watch it.”
Osaka has begun to do the work of thinking like a competitor. It was almost as if, in the hour or so between her victory over Keys and speaking to the press, she’d instantly grown up.
“For me, she’ll always be someone I look up to. But tenniswise, I want to try to do my own thing,” Osaka said. “I want to be my own person.”