Tennis: Osaka set to live out childhood dream against idol Williams

After making history Thursday by becoming the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final, Naomi Osaka is set to live out a childhood dream by playing idol Serena Williams for the U.S. Open title.

«Of course it feels a little bit surreal. Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed I would play Serena in the final of a Grand Slam,» Osaka said following her 6-2, 6-4 semifinal victory over American Madison Keys.

Despite having the upper hand against 14th seed Keys throughout the match, the 20-year-old Osaka said she had been fighting to control her nerves.

«I thought I was physically shaking. But I just tried to think, like, ‘I’ve never been in this situation before, and I’m really grateful to be here,'» the 20th seed said.

Osaka and Williams have played each other only once, in the opening round of the Miami Open in March, when 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams was starting her comeback following the birth of her first child.

Osaka won that meeting 6-3, 6-2 and afterwards credited her «favorite player» Williams for having inspired her to pick up a racket.

«She’s the main reason why I started playing tennis. I’ve seen her on TV so many times and I’ve always been cheering for her,» Osaka said.

On Thursday, Osaka gave a succinct answer when asked if she had a message for final opponent Williams: «I love you.»

The semifinal victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium was her first win in four meetings with Keys, who most recently bundled Osaka out of this year’s French Open in the fourth round.

At the U.S. Open in 2016, Osaka, then an 18-year-old, collapsed after taking a 5-1 lead in the third set of their third-round match to lose 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(3).

Osaka, who has dropped only one set on the way to her final against Williams, will be expecting a much harder contest than in Miami on Saturday.

The 36-year-old Williams, a six-time winner in New York, has been steadily working her way back since her 13-month maternity absence, during which her WTA ranking plummeted to 491.

Following her 6-3, 6-0 semifinal win over Latvian 19th seed Anastasija Sevastova, the 17th-seeded Williams said she was «50 or 60 percent» of the way to regaining the fitness she had prior to having a baby.

«I definitely don’t feel myself yet. I’m definitely not there,» she said.

While insisting her performance had been an aberration, Williams said the match against Osaka in Miami was important preparation for Saturday’s final.

«It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,» Williams said. «Hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.»

Osaka, who won her maiden WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open in March, said she would need to keep her dream matchup with Williams in perspective in order to claim her first Grand Slam silverware.

«Even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think that it is just another match,» she said.

All — Kyodo News+

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