Although Serena Williams was facing a large burden of pressure coming into this year’s US Open final, the situation was also potentially overwhelming for Naomi Osaka.
The Japanese star, a shy girl just 20 years of age, was walking into a cauldron of support for Serena – 23,000 fans supporting the 23-time Grand Slam champion on home soil.
Osaka had never before gone beyond the fourth round of a major tournament yet here she was, on the biggest court in the world, facing a player she has openly professed to love.
There had been no occasion bigger in her career. And she handled it, and herself, impeccably.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 8, 2018
“I was able to do that because it was my first Grand Slam final. I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis, because that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” she said after her 6-2 6-4 victory over Williams, a win marred by controversy.
“When I step onto the court I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan, I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player.”
It was this psychological approach that helped her immeasurably, especially as Williams raged with umpire Carlos Ramos across the net after finding herself on the receiving end of three separate code violations – the last of which resulted in her losing an entire game.
Osaka claimed that, with the noise in the stadium, she couldn’t hear what Serena was saying and what was going on between her and Ramos.
Instead, she retained a zen-like focus that helped her keep calm and purposeful amid the din of the crowd and the frequent interruptions to the flow of play.
“I didn’t really hear anything, because I had my back turned, so I didn’t really know there was anything going on at the moment,” she explained.
“I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she’s such a great champion and I know that she can come back from any point, so I was just trying to focus on myself at that time.”
This focus on herself allowed her to become the youngest champion in New York since Maria Sharapova in 2006 – she was already the youngest finalist since Caroline Wozniacki in 2009 – and the first Grand Slam champion from her country in history.
She is projected to launch into the top 10 at world No.7 when next week’s rankings are released.
She possessed a significant deficit in experience compared with Williams, a player 16 years older who was contesting her 31st Grand Slam final, and ninth alone at Flushing Meadows.
Osaka was not even two years old when Serena won her first Grand Slam title at the same venue in 1999.
“It doesn’t really feel real,” she said of her triumph.
“I think maybe in a few days I’ll realise what I’ve done, but right now it just feels like — I don’t know, aside from the fact that there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament.”
She credited the influence of coach Sascha Bajin – who worked as Williams’ hitting partner for eight years – for helping bring positivity and fun to her tennis, given her tendency to get down on herself.
And she made a point of enjoying the experience of playing, after coming into the tournament having won just one of her four lead-up matches and bombing in the first round at both Montreal and Cincinnati.
It contributed to one of the most remarkable Grand Slam fortnights in recent memory; Osaka dropped just one set in seven matches (to Aryna Sabalenka) and match after match dismantled quality opponents, barely allowing them to get into sets.
“I feel like coming into this tournament I had a lot of things happen to me and then now I’m just having fun when I play, so I think that’s always something I can keep trying to do,” she said.
“I just really wanna have fun with every match that I play, because tennis is a game, but professional tennis players I think sometimes we lose sight of that.”
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