A year after Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka were both caught up in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, both will be trying to make history in the U.S. Open final on Saturday.
For Williams, the joy of giving birth for the first time last September was quickly followed by a series of complications that led to multiple life-saving surgeries.
At the same time, precocious Japanese talent Osaka, who grew up idolising Williams, was left wondering if she would ever make it through to the second week of a major after another early exit at Flushing Meadows.
Twelve months on and the duo will contest a high-stakes final where the prize on offer will not only be the $3.8 million winner’s cheque that is up for grabs.
For Williams, victory would allow her to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
But standing in her way will be a determined Osaka eager to become the first Japanese player to win a singles major.
Williams will undoubtedly have the support of her home crowd but there will be no shortage of love for Osaka, who has won the admiration of New Yorkers over the last fortnight as much for her red-hot game as her cool-headed demeanor.
Osaka and Williams have played against each other once before, at Miami in March, and it was the Japanese upstart who used her formidable power to topple her idol in straight sets.
While Williams refused to read too much into that result considering she was competing in only her second tournament following the birth of Alexis Olympia, the win should offer some added measure of belief for Osaka, who has not been shy about describing her admiration for the American.
“Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it,” Osaka said after her semi-final win over 2017 runner-up Madison Keys.
“I really feel like I don’t want to overthink this match, so I’m not going to think that she’s so much better than she was in Miami.
“I’m just going to go out there and play. Since I already know she’s a good player, I don’t want to be surprised if she plays better or not.”
Osaka has demonstrated extreme composure to go along with her power game and has only dropped one set while carving a path into the final.
But Williams will represent the stiffest test yet for Osaka after also cruising mostly unchallenged into the final, her only real blip coming in the fourth round when she needed three sets to get by Estonian Kaia Kanepi.
Williams, whose first crack at joining Australian Court atop the list of most Grand Slam titles ended in defeat at this year’s Wimbledon final, knows she has come a long way since the Miami defeat to Osaka.
“Well, it was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,” said six-times U.S. Open champion Williams, who will be bidding to join Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters as the only mothers to have won Grand Slam titles in the professional era.
“I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation. It was what it was. Hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
Form guide for American Serena Williams ahead of Saturday’s U.S. Open final clash against Japan’s Naomi Osaka (prefix number denotes seeding):
Height: 1.75 metres
Plays: Right handed
WTA ranking: 26
Grand Slam titles: 23 (Australian Open 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017; French Open 2002, 2013, 2015; Wimbledon 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016; U.S. Open 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014)
Williams swatted aside Latvian 19th seed Anastasija Sevastova to storm into the U.S. Open women’s final where she will face Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who beat her in their only previous meeting this year.
Williams will be heavily backed to claim her first Grand Slam trophy since winning last year’s Australian Open while pregnant and equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors.
The 36-year-old, who gave birth to daughter Alexis-Olympia last September, reached this year’s Wimbledon title clash while still working to strike a balance between the challenges of motherhood and professional tennis.
She is bidding to join Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters as the only mothers to have won Grand Slam titles in the professional era.
ROAD TO FINAL:
First round: beat Magda Linette (Poland) 6-4 6-0
Second round: beat Carina Witthoeft (Germany) 6-2 6-2
Third Round: beat 16-Venus Williams (U.S.) 6-1 6-2
Fourth Round: beat Kaia Kanepi (Estonia) 6-0 4-6 6-3
Quarter-finals: beat 8-Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic) 6-4 6-3
Semi-finals: beat 19-Anastasija Sevastova (Latvia) 6-3 6-0
Form guide for Japan’s Naomi Osaka ahead of Saturday’s U.S. Open final against American Serena Williams (prefix number denotes seeding):
Height: 1.80 metres
Plays: Right handed
WTA ranking: 19
Grand Slam titles: 0
Best Grand Slam result: U.S. Open final 2018
Japan’s Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final when she battled past last year’s runner-up Madison Keys.
Standing in the way of the emerging 20-year-old’s first major crown and second title of the season is another American, her childhood idol Serena Williams.
Osaka will be full of confidence going into the biggest match of her career so far, having beaten Williams in straight sets in this year’s Miami Masters.
Another upset will make Osaka only the second Asian to win a singles major after China’s Li Na.
ROAD TO FINAL:
First round: beat Laura Siegemund (Germany) 6-3 6-2
Second round: beat Julia Glushko (Israel) 6-2 6-0
Third Round: beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich (Belarus) 6-0 6-0
Fourth Round: beat 26-Aryna Sabalenka (Belarus) 6-3 2-6 6-4
Quarter-finals: beat Lesia Tsurenko (Ukraine) 6-1 6-1
Semi-finals: beat 14-Madison Keys (U.S.) 6-2 6-4