Serena Williams will face a player who grew up idolising her in the US Open final on Saturday after Naomi Osaka cemented her reputation as the most exciting young talent in women’s tennis by beating Madison Keys.
Osaka spent the formative years of her childhood living in New York and first came to Flushing Meadows as a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of Williams.
Osaka was only a year old when Williams won her first slam title here in 1999. Now, 19 years later, she will try to deny the American a record-equalling 24th title after beating Keys 6-2 6-4.
Osaka, the first Japanese woman ever to make a slam singles final, saved all 13 break points she faced, and, asked how she did it, replied: “This is going to sound really bad but I was just thinking I really want to play Serena.”
It was no real surprise to see Williams blitz Anastasija Sevastova 6-3 6-0 to reach her 31st slam final but Osaka’s clash with Keys was a much more difficult match to predict.
This was two of the candidates to take over the mantle from Williams when she does finally hang up her racket slugging it out on the biggest stage in the sport.
Both were inspired by the Williams sisters and both are known for the same power game. This was Keys’ fourth slam semi-final and a second in succession here after her run to the final 12 months ago, where she lost to Sloane Stephens.
Osaka, nearly three years younger than her opponent, had never been beyond the fourth round at a slam prior to this week but, bar a very close match against fellow 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, has steamrollered through the draw.
But what impressed in this match was not so much Osaka’s big hitting but the rest of her game and her remarkable poise under pressure.
The Japanese player, shy and quirky off the court but a fierce fighter on it, defended magnificently, used the angles intelligently and, above all, reserved her best for the biggest moments.
From 1-2 in the opening set there were three successive games with chances for both players but it was Osaka who won them all.
Then, having broken in the opening game of the second set, Osaka fended off six break points in an epic second game, much to the frustration of Keys, who had seen 12 openings on her opponent’s serve come and go.
Another chance came and went in the eighth game and, although Keys was now serving superbly, she just could not find a way through.