Sports Williams vs. Osaka Is a Clash of Generations With Several Common Threads
Despite all the parallels — and there are plenty — Naomi Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, insists that he and Osaka hardly ever talk about Serena Williams.
“No, no, no,” he said very late on Thursday night as we spoke on the edge of the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “We focus on other stuff. We joke about other stuff.”
Bajin, a tall, lean German who was Williams’s hitting partner for eight years, then paused for effect and grinned.
“But obviously, tomorrow we might talk a little bit more about her,” he said.
That is because the career paths of Osaka and Williams are about to cross at the summit on Saturday in the United States Open final.
It will be the first Grand Slam singles final for the 20-year-old Osaka, who represents Japan but holds American citizenship and grew up primarily in the United States. It will be the 31st major singles final for Williams, who is 36 and has a birthday looming this month.
The 16-year age gap is the second biggest in a major final in the Open era, surpassed only by the 1991 United States Open, when 17-year-old Monica Seles defeated 34-year-old Martina Navratilova. An intergenerational final like this is a rare opportunity for Osaka to raise her profile in a hurry by facing off against the biggest star in the women’s game.
“It should be a great one,” Navratilova said Thursday. “What a contrast in personalities, cultures and ages.”
In 2014, Osaka, then 16, took photographs with her idol Williams at the Bank of the West Classic tournament in California. But their real introduction came in March at the Miami Open. Osaka, swinging and serving with authority, brutally exposed Williams’s post-maternity limitations with a 6-3, 6-2 victory in the first round.
“I played obscenity,” she told me in an interview in April, avoiding a four-letter word. “I feel like I set my expectations incredibly high, and I feel like after Miami, I wanted to get more, not realistic expectations, but more reasonable expectations for me. And so I took some time off and then started training like a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot.”
Williams surely had Osaka in her mind’s eye during some of those training sessions.
“It was good that I played her, because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said Thursday. “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.”
Her fitness and form have certainly improved. She has continued to struggle in regular tour events, but Williams has won 15 of the 16 Grand Slam singles matches she has played in this closely watched comeback season.
“She looks great right now,” Bajin said. “And if you look at her record in Grand Slams, she’s definitely a different player, particularly in a Grand Slam final, than she is in Miami or any other tournament. So I know Serena’s not going to give it to us, and I hope for Naomi that it’s going to be a good match.”
The potential is clearly there. Osaka, with a power baseline game inspired by Williams, has had a breakthrough season, rumbling through the draw to win the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March and then sweeping through the field here in New York. She has dropped only one set — to the dangerous newcomer Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round — and has routinely polished off opponents in about an hour.
On Thursday night, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, Osaka navigated the pressure and the potential pitfalls brilliantly to defeat Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4. Osaka saved all 13 break points she faced, often with decisive first serves or bold shotmaking.
And Osaka is now fit enough and quick enough to be able to wait for the optimal moment to be bold.
“She just held her nerve so well,” Navratilova said. “Her game was clean, very clean. What really impressed me against Keys was that she was just on balance and really picked all the right shots. She had a game plan and executed it. If I were coaching her, I’d be on cloud nine.”
Bajin, who split with Caroline Wozniacki as a hitting partner at the end of last season, joined Osaka’s team shortly after that. One of those who recommended that he be put on Osaka’s coaching shortlist was Williams’s longtime agent, Jill Smoller.
Bajin understands the symbolism of Saturday’s final in light of his long association with Williams, but he has been in the opposite camp before, as a hitting partner for Victoria Azarenka.
“I’m sure the media will make this a little bit bigger than it is,” he said. “There is a lot there, but we’ll find out what it means when the match is done.”
Osaka has said she would not have played tennis if it were not for Williams — because the Williams family was the inspiration for her father, Leonard Francois, as he raised and coached his two daughters to be tennis professionals.
“Of course it feels a little bit, like, surreal,” said Osaka, who, like Serena Williams, is the younger sister. “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 is happening, I’m very happy about it. At the same time, I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol.”
Ola Malmqvist, the head of women’s tennis for U.S.T.A. player development, said the U.S.T.A. made a serious effort in Osaka’s teen years to persuade the family to have her represent the United States.
But Osaka’s parents, who have declined interviews requests at the Open, have said in the past that the decision to represent Japan was made early. Now their daughter is the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
Osaka’s play in New York is a tribute to her talent and commitment but also to the impact of a new fitness coach, Abdul Sillah, who once worked with Williams and more recently worked for the Belarus Tennis Federation, helping young talents like Sabalenka.
He joined Osaka’s team before Indian Wells after, he said, training some Yankees players, including Aaron Hicks.
Making big fitness gains in the midst of a season is a challenge, but Osaka has lost weight and become more explosive in her movement, even if her results on court were unimpressive between Indian Wells and the Open. She dealt with minor injuries and struggled, by her own admission, to cope with the fallout from her success at Indian Wells.
“Naomi made actually dramatic progress, more than I was anticipating,” Sillah said after the victory over Keys. “I told her: ‘You’re going to be a sprinter on the tennis court, and we don’t give up on any ball. I don’t care where the ball is, we’re going to fight for it,’ and she showed me that tonight against Maddie, and that’s really what I’m proud of.”
Her leg drive on her first serve has improved, adding power. “But it’s also being able to react when the ball comes back because she serves so hard, the ball usually comes back faster on the return,” Sillah said. “Before, she was a little more flat-footed. She couldn’t get out of the way when the ball came back, but now she can.”
Sillah sees commonalities with Williams.
“What made this easier is because Naomi is so open and teachable, and to me, that is the beginning of learning how to be a champion,” he said. “That is the same thing we talked about with Serena and Mr. Williams, teaching Serena how to be teachable. And once you have that personality, it’s much easier to actually get someone to achieve their goal.”
Williams’s immediate goal is a 24th major singles title, which would tie her with Margaret Court, the Australian star whose career bridged the amateur and Open eras.
She, too, had late-career success after becoming a mother, winning her final three major singles titles in 1973 after giving birth to a son, Daniel, in March 1972.
Williams has reached two major finals since the birth of her daughter, Olympia, last September (she won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant). And one of the questions is whether she will be able to manage her emotions and expectations on Saturday better than she did in her loss to Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final in July.
Williams wants to be a role model for working mothers, and at Wimbledon, it looked as if she was carrying the weight of that self-imposed responsibility along with the pressure of facing a master counterpuncher like Kerber.
This time, Williams will face someone who can punch just as hard as she can, although Osaka, unlike Kerber, has no experience at this pressurized stage of a major tournament.
But she and her team do not seem satisfied to simply be here. Late Thursday night as Bajin hugged Osaka’s father in the players lounge, Bajin said to him: “We’re not happy yet. We’re not happy yet.”
Brook Larmer contributed reporting.