Japanese finalist’s grandparents coming to watch her in first US Open final
Japanese surprise packet Naomi Osaka remains the last barrier between a surging Serena Williams and a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title as the pair square off in Saturday in the US Open final.
The 20-year-old Osaka, ranked 19th with a bullet, advanced into the biggest match of her career as she put out 2017 finalist Madison Keys in 86-minute straight sets.
She is the first Japanese women to ever reach a final at a major.
Williams, a six-time champion at Flushing Meadows who won her first title in New York nearly two decades ago in 1999, was ruthless in a 6-3, 6-0 semi-final demolition of job of Anastasija Sevastova which took little more than one hour.
The eager Osaka plays with a nonchalance which has made her a danger, as she proved last March in Indian Wells when she won that prestige event with defeats of a pair of Top 5 seeds – including world No. 1 Simona Halep.
“I don’t really feel pressure from them. I feel a lot of support, and I’m really grateful about that.”
“Winning in Indian Wells helped me a lot, I feel like the state of mind that I have here – I don’t feel pressure, I feel a little bit like I’m used to it.”
For the youngster it’s all to play for in the Ashe stadium this weekend: “This is going to sound really bad. I was just thinking I really want to play Serena,” she confessed after her semi-final win.
Osaka, daughter of an Haitian father and Japanese mother who grew up in the New York area and barely speaks any Japanese, expects to be amped up for the biggest test of her rocketing career.
Now that it’s crunch time, she plans to be ready to rock: “The quarters was sort of my mental goal every time I played a Grand Slam.
“And then after I got to the quarters, I wanted to keep going. I feel like I have to be focused again and keep trying really hard.
“This definitely means a lot for me, I always thought if I were to win a Grand Slam, the first one I’d want to win is the US Open.
“I grew up here and my grandparents can come and watch. I think it would be really cool.”
Osaka boasts a culturally varied background.
“I was born in Osaka, I came to New York when I was three. I moved from New York to Florida when I was, like, eight or nine, and I’ve been training in Florida since.
“My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. And my mom is Japanese. I grew up with the Japanese culture, too.
“If you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that, too.”
Osaka stunned Williams – just beginning her tennis comeback after a difficult childbirth last September – with an Indian Wells defeat in their only previous meeting.
But with the 36-year-old Williams quickly returning to her standard championships form, the final looks to be Experience v Youth.
Williams will get another chance to equal Margaret Court on the all-time 24 Grand Slam singles titles gold standard.
The American lost New York finals in 2001 and 2011.
“It’s obviously really incredible. A year ago I was literally fighting for my life after I had the baby,” the new mother said of her ordeal with pregnancy blood clots.
“Every time I step out on the court, I feel so grateful. Whatever happens I feel like I’ve already won. This is just the beginning and I’m really excited about that.”
Osaka said she was attracted to tennis at a young age, partly through exposure as a child to the nearby Open.
“It was sort of the first tournament that I saw all the people that were playing on TV. So I thought it was something really amazing.
“Just to see them in person and experience the atmosphere, As a kid, I thought it was really cool.”
The confident challenger seems ready for her big day. “Every young person playing, they want to win Grand Slams and they want to be No. 1.
“Of course that’s my goal. But again, I’m not trying to put too much pressure on myself.
“I know I’m in a position that I can possibly do that, but I want to really think that I’m grateful to be in the position that I am in and I just want to take, like, one point at a time.
“Everyone wants to win this tournament.”
For her part, Williams is pleased to be making steady comeback progress as she tries to re-ignite her career.
“I’m only a few months in and really looking forward to the rest of the year and next year.
“I’ve been a couple of steps away at the last Grand Slam, so I’m definitely not ahead of myself,” said Williams, who fell to Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final in July.
“I still know that no matter whether I’m in the semi-finals or the finals, I have a really long way to go to win that.
“That proved to be true at Wimbledon (finals loss to Angelique Kerber), I’m just taking it one at a time — literally.
”I don’t think I have another 10 years of having opportunities to be able to play and win championships. Every match really means a lot to me.”