KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Kids grow up so fast. Some of them had notable spurts during the 13 months Serena Williams was out on pregnancy and maternity leave. Among them is Naomi Osaka, who has never known a tennis landscape without the towering figure of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Mere hours after celebrating her first WTA title in Indian Wells, the 20-year-old Osaka was in a car en route to the airport when her coach, Sascha Bajin, told her she’d drawn Williams in the first round of the Miami Open. He expected a little shock and awe. Instead, she yelped with glee and called her mother.
“It’s weird if you grow up watching someone and wanting to be exactly like them and then you have the chance to play them,” Osaka said in her deliberate yet delightfully spontaneous cadence after the match. “It’s sort of this respect thing, but you also want to win really bad. I don’t really know how to describe it. I just wanted her to, in the end, like after the match, just know who I am and stuff.”
Osaka, the daughter of Haitian and Japanese parents who represents Japan and resides in Florida, probably won’t have to show her ID to Williams the next time they face off. She displayed memorable poise in a situation that shaped up to be somewhat daunting, on and off paper, taking 77 minutes to defeat Williams 6-3, 6-2.
Osaka said she had never been so nervous about playing “a specific person,” but that angst didn’t show. On the court afterward, Osaka said she had simply wanted to impress Williams.
The senior player told her opponent “good job” at the net, but any other thoughts from Williams on her young opponent remained unexpressed. Williams packed quickly after swatting a forehand long on match point, the last of her 28 unforced errors and a moment she punctuated with a chagrined smile. She strode out of the stadium and directly into a waiting car, skipping the WTA-mandated news conference.
She might be interested to hear that Osaka said she tried to avert her gaze from the other side of the court “because I might freak myself out a little bit” or tickled at the thought that Osaka wanted to make her yell “Come on!” just to be certain she was testing her.
Williams might take some satisfaction in the knowledge that when Osaka served up a couple of aces to close out her only tough game of the second set, she was thinking, “What would Serena do?”
Or maybe not.
“You know how, like, sometimes she aces people in really bad positions?” Osaka said postmatch. “So I was trying to do that. It worked out.”
The unusually tough early draw came about as a result of WTA rules, under which athletes returning from childbirth can use a “protected” ranking or a wild card to enter tournaments but get no breaks on seeding. Wednesday’s match was only Williams’ fourth on the WTA Tour after her long break, and she clearly has some miles to go to peak fitness, but she is still who she is and not to be taken lightly.
Bajin is perhaps uniquely qualified to prepare a player to face that monumental figure, having been Williams’ hitting partner for many years. He gave Osaka a day off Monday, then put her through two practice sessions the next day and administered a dose of wisdom.
“I shared a few stories about Serena to make her a little bit more human in her eyes — nothing bad but just funny stories I’ve lived with her,” Bajin told me Tuesday. “I targeted some things I want [Osaka] to do without even telling her, ‘Hey, this is something that is gonna work against Serena.’ She’s not afraid. She’s very looking forward to that challenge.
“I’m going to tell Naomi to treat the ball as her opponent, not Serena. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to who serves better and who can keep their composure together.”
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 21, 2018
That proved prophetic, as Osaka swatted seven aces to Williams’ three, did not lose serve, cracked one 119 mph rocket and — for a portion of one afternoon, anyway — made the psychic distance between the two players evaporate.
It might not ever feel that way again. Every big match Osaka wins right now is an upset, and each peak experience is fresh and new: making trophy acceptance speeches, sharing a private jet with the woman she just beat, shaking hands with an icon she is accustomed to seeing on the flat expanse of a television screen rather than in three dimensions.
Precisely how did she want to impress Williams?
“Just not losing 6-0, 6-0,” Osaka said. “Just fighting for every point.”
Her expectations are sure to change as she comes of age.