Tuesday, April 20, 2021

THE SOUL OF THE US OPEN: Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka ‘Dream’ Final Preview

*Flushing, NY – The US Open final is set and the two finalists are Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, both with incredible back stories. 

Serena Williams hasn’t found herself in a final at Flushing meadows since 2014. She made two semis, 2015 (d. By Roberta Vinci) and 2016 (d. by Karolina Pliskova), but she was crippled by the enormous pressure of achieving record-breaking milestones. She then went off to marry and start a family … but she’s not content to just be a mom and wife. Those are great titles, but she yet has other titles to achieve. 

Now, we find Serena in New York again making another go at it, and so far she hasn’t stumled. 

The six-time US Open winner has advanced all the way to the finals, again, and made it seem easy in doing so. On Thursday, she emphatically dismissed her semifinal opponent, Anastasjia Sevastova, 6-3, 6-0 in a dazzling display of big serving (topping 123 mph, powerful ground strokes, and deft net play. She had winning on her mind and did what she came to do.

Now, she’s only one win away from … wait, why does it feel like the bar keeps moving? Maybe it’s just deja vu … But, she’s just one win away from being certified as the GOAT of women’s tennis, because she will have matched the record for most Grand Slams won by any woman alive or deceased, 24. Margaret Court holds the current record, but it comes with an asterisks as she didn’t play her matches during the open era (organized international competition). Nevertheless, many feel since Serena hadn’t reached that number, her place, first place, in history is disputable. I suppose when she matches it she’ll then have to beat it to be bestowed the honor. 

She’s up to the task, though. 

Serena fought her way through a draw that included Venus Williams, Kaia Kanepi (ousted the world no. 1) and Karolina Pliskova and other stiff competition to find herself in her 12th US Open final (singles and doubles). 

“This is only the beginning,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be here so quickly, but I’m still not completely there. Every time I can step into the tennis court it’s a win because a year against, I was fighting for my life with having the baby.”

Her guile, determination and the way she plays the game has earned the respect of many, from fans to peers … including her opponent in this year’s final: Naomi Osaka of Japan.

Osaka made it clear on court after she shut out American Madison Keys in her semifinals match that she not only loves Serena, but she has dreamt of playing her in a US Open final. 

“This May sound bad, but I [won because] I wanted to play Serena,” she said in response to how she was able to compete at the level she did against Keys. 

“I love her,” she said, but made it clear that she wouldn’t let that get in the way and would play to win. “I don’t dream to lose,” she added.

Ironically, Naomi could have come up  through the USTA just the way Serena did, but she was rejected (or lost in the shuffle, according to its leadership). Once she was turned down she made the decision to affiliate with Japan, which is her mothers nationality. She has a Haitian father and grew up and trained in New York and Florida, but she loves Japan equally … and Japan loves her. If you scan the audience during her matches – which I suspect will increase tremendously for the final – you’ll see her conspicuous Japanese supporters throughout. 

Osaka’s endearingly giddy personality and contradictory bashfulness (to her power game)has gained her many new fans including in the US, so the crowd will be justifiably split. Whether to latch on to Serena’s story in her GOAT quest or Naomi’s story of having her dream fulfilled will be quite the decision. Either way, the atmosphere inside Arthur Ashe will be super-charged.

The match is guaranteed to deliver plenty of “c’mon” roars, ball bashing galore and dazzling displays of tennis-artistry. Who will come out on top as the winner of the trophy will literally be a toss up … who can serve the best and back it up. 

Osaka, the first Japanese woman to ever reach a Grand Slam final, may have the upper hand in the battle because she’s coached by Serena’s ex-hitting partner, Sascha Bajin (who teared up at the prospect of the two meeting). He was a friend to Serena while part of her team, but he will likely put that to the side to help Naomi develop a winning strategy. He has plenty of intel regarding how the former champion plays and what makes her tick. If Patrick Mouratoglou (Serena’s coach) is smart, he’ll encourage her to change up her game (dangerous during such an importance match) to counter Sascha’s input. 

But believe, now that Serena has gotten over the semis hump, the all-time record is firmly in her crosshairs. When she sets her sights on such milestones, that when she rarely loses. 

It’s a great narrative for both players and they’ll be sure to leave it all on the court. So tune in Saturday at 4pm EST for some great, passionate tennis and to see who hoists the trophy in the end.

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