US Open 2018: Women’s Final Preview: Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka

published: Sep, 08, 2018

by: Ben Stevens

I could relate to kids going straight to the league
When they recognize that you got what it takes to succeed
And that’s around the time that your idols become your rivals
You make friends with Mike but gotta AI him for your survival

– Drake, “Thank Me Now”

When Canadian rapper Drake wrote those lyrics in 2010, it’s safe to say he’d never heard of Naomi Osaka, yet they ring true for the 20-year-old perhaps more than any athlete in recent memory. Even the name-checked Allen Iverson’s situation doesn’t pale to Osaka’s, who simply hasn’t known a time in her life when Serena Williams wasn’t a massively successful tennis player, one with whom she reveled in every successive major title – now, she finds herself the only thing standing in the way of the next one.

Such is the incredible story set to unfold on Saturday. Williams v Osaka. Idols become your rivals. What will happen next? Read on for out complete preview of the 2018 US Open Women’s Final.

Serena Williams (USA) [17] v Naomi Osaka (JPN) [20]

The Storylines

As was the story at Wimbledon, so it is again here for Serena. Win, and she moves level with Margaret Court for equal-first on the all-time major title list at 24, while also capping-off a remarkable personal journey from her 2017 pregnancy and related complications back to the top of the sport, at nearly 37 years of age. No, she doesn’t need any further proof of her legend status, but hey, Serena wouldn’t be Serena if she didn’t go after it anyway.

For the 20-year-old Osaka, a win would be nothing less than life-altering. It’s one thing to be a future star, it’s another entirely to be a current one, and it’s even rarer to be both, which is a real possibility for the Japanese. Of course, you wouldn’t assume this is her only shot at a major title, but the greats – the true greats – don’t wait for their coronation, and right now, such a career looks to be in play.

The Form

With only one set against her through her first six matches, Serena comes into this one having played largely like the pre-tournament favourite she was, albeit not without being tested along the way. Against both Simona Halep-killer Kaia Kanepi (lost the second set) in the R16, and Karolina Pliskova (down an early break) in the QFs, the American needed to extract herself from some particularly sticky situations, but her ability to bounce back against those opponents – and then easily dispatch Anastasija Sevastova in the semis – puts her in very good stead here.

Equally, Osaka has also only dropped a solitary set this tournament, against fellow young-gun Aryna Sabalenka in their R16 match-of-the-tournament candidate. For the most part, the 20-year-old has ranged from untouchable (three early-round bagels, two breadsticks against QF opponent Lesia Tsurenko) to imperturbable (13/13 break points saved against SF opponent Madison Keys) – either way, she’s ready for the final.

The Matchup

Having taken their first and only career meeting in a 6-3, 6-2 affair earlier this year in Miami, Osaka already knows what it’s like to beat her idol, and yet, considering how early that was in Serena’s comeback, and how far along she is now, it’s highly unlikely the Japanese will have it so easy here.

Indeed, it’s hard to deny Serena’s place as the favourite. She’s been both “here” (31 major finals), and literally here (8 times in New York, with 6 wins) to be as comfortable under the Ashe lights as a player can be, a matter only helped by having virtually the entire crowd behind her. She hits bigger than Osaka, more consistently than Osaka’s previous opponents, and unlike in Miami, will have the serve and movement to work her way out of tight spots. Add to that Osaka’s iffy second serve that, often at shoulder height is there to be a hit, and Serena should be able to start most rallies on the front foot – generally speaking, that shouldn’t bode well for Osaka.

And yet, despite all that, Osaka still has one big ace up her sleeve – she just doesn’t give a fu-… dge. We’ve already seen it multiple times this tournament: Osaka gets into a stare down with a heavy hitter, and simply refuses to blink. Even at 20, her ability to hit through balls with pace and depth while playing off the back foot is unparalleled on the WTA tour, and that means her opponents are often forced to do too much, allowing her to eventually draw an error, or find an opening to hit a winner herself. As long as she’s not fazed by the opponent or the moment (and she doesn’t seem like she will be), such play will be incredibly frustrating for Serena, and maybe even enough to get the job done.

The Prediction

Serena in three. If this is anything less than an extremely hard-fought affair it will come as a great surprise, but in the end, the advantage Serena has on serve and when dictating from the back of the court makes her the logical pick. Twenty-three is about to become twenty-four, and the legend of Serena Williams continues.

Ben Stevens

Contributor to TennisConnected. Long time player, coach and fan. Still waiting on Mark Philippoussis to break through at a major.

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