US Open | Osaka knocks out Keys for dream final
Under the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the noise is deafening at times and the atmosphere electric, the perfect backdrop for the youngest US Open semi-final in nearly a decade, when 20-year-old Naomi Osaka made history.
The first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final, the 20-year-old is also realising a childhood dream, facing her idol Serena Williams there.
Earlier in the evening on Ashe, in her semi-final, Serena had stopped No 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, 6-3 6-0, to reach her 9th final at Flushing Meadows and 31st at all Grand Slam tournaments.
For a first-time semi-finalist on a big stage, it was really impressive how she held her nerve the entire time and never really had any kind of slip-up Madison Keys
“Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in the final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka said after dispatching Madison Keys, 6-2,6-4 in the second of Thursday night’s semi-finals.
“Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it. At the same time I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. I shouldn’t really think of her as my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
Asked how that Grand Slam final against Williams in her dreams had turned out, Osaka smiled: “I don’t dream to lose,” she said.
The World No 19 has a Haitian father and Japanese mother but has spent most of her life in the United States and enjoys dual citizenship but has chosen to represent Japan, despite speaking little Japanese.
While Osaka has a big-hitting game, her victory over Keys, who lost in last year’s final, was based as much on her mental strength, saving 13 of the American’s break point opportunities.
“Every time I had a break point, or anything like that, she came up with some unbelievable shots,” Keys said afterwards.
“For a first-time semi-finalist on a big stage, it was really impressive how she held her nerve the entire time and never really had any kind of slip-up.”
Over the last two weeks, Osaka, the No 20 seed, has dominated her opponents, dropping just one set in the fourth round against Aryna Sabalenka.
Before that, she had crushed her second-round opponent, Julia Glushko, 6-2 6-0 before pulverising poor Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-0 6-0 in less than an hour.
Then she reached the semi-finals with a comfortable 6-1 6-1 victory over Lesia Tsurenko that lasted all of 57 minutes.
Remarkably, despite her youth, Osaka rarely seems unnerved by circumstances and Thursday’s match, her first major semi-final and her first night match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, was no exception.
Osaka was 0-3 against Keys, the losing finalist here last year, and their only previous match at the US Open had been a disaster when, in the third round in 2016, the Japanese had led 5-1 in the third set before the American rallied to win the decider in a tiebreak, a devastating defeat that brought the then 18-year-old to tears.
This time round, however, Osaka took control of the match and never relinquished it, saving all those break point opportunities on the way.
How did Osaka manage to remain locked in? Naturally, her idol played a role: “This is going to sound really bad,” she said in an on-court interview after the match, “but I was just thinking I really want to play Serena.”
In March, even after beating Serena in straight sets in the opening round of the Miami Open, Osaka still seemed awed by her childhood idol.
“She’s the main reason I started playing tennis,” she said. “I just wanted her after the match to know who I am.”
If Williams didn’t know Osaka then, she certainly does now.
Osaka wasn’t born when Williams, now 36, made her professional debut in 1994 as a 14-year-old, and she was just a year old when Serena won her first major at the 1999 US Open.
Nearly two decades later, Williams is aiming for her 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Margaret Court’s record, while Osaka is playing in her first major final after never having been past the fourth round before.
Against Keys, Osaka demonstrated her composure in a performance that needed just 85 minutes to deny an an all-American final.
She landed 70 percent of her first serves in the match, went 3-for-4 on break point opportunities on Keys’ serve, and was perfect when she ventured to net, 5-for-5.
“I felt like if I could break, maybe I could get back into it. Every time I had a break point, it was an ace or a winner or something like that,” Keys said in defeat.
“You’re in that match and you think, ‘Okay, she’s going to let up eventually.’ She didn’t, so all credit to her…It was really impressive.”
Trailing 2-1 in the opener, Osaka saved 4 chances which would have seen Keys move ahead 3-1, and earned the first break of the match in the ensuing game.
After breaking serve to begin the second set, Osaka again passed a big test with flying colours.
In a marathon, 8-deuce game, the Japanese seed saved 6 break points total to keep a lead which she never relinquished for the duration of the match.
“This still feels really weird, because I’ve never beaten Madison before. She’s such a good player,” a delighted Osaka said in her on-court interview.
“I just tried to think that I’ve never been in this situation before, [and] I’m just really happy to be here.”
In what is likely to be a dream final for both players, victory on Saturday would be particularly sweet, but for entirely different reasons.
Osaka could lift her first major trophy with a win over an icon while Williams, a year after nearly dying during childbirth, could celebrate her first Grand Slam with her daughter.
Williams didn’t play particularly well against Osaka in Miami, losing 6-3 6-2 in just her fourth singles match after returning from maternity leave.
“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said. “I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation…hopefully I won’t play like that again.”
Osaka’s confidence is soaring these days and she certainly doesn’t lack in self-belief, not dreaming of losing.
Saturday’s women’s trophy match will be fascinating to see if Osaka can lift her first Slam title, or Williams win a legendary 24th.