Stephanie Livaudais: The Case for Serena
1. Serena has nothing to lose.
It’s an incredible thing to say about the 23-time Grand Slam champion who’s looking to tie the all-time record at the US Open, but it’s what Serena has been saying all fortnight long.
And it’s true. It was just a year ago that Serena was struggling for her life after complications during the delivery of daughter Alexis Olympia, which resulted in an emergency C-section, subsequent blood clots and surgical interventions that left her bedridden.
Serena has fought her way back to tennis’ biggest stages and reached back-to-back Grand Slam finals, a credit to her fighting spirit. And, according to Serena, she’s just grateful to be on this comeback journey at all.
“To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything... Now only a year later, I'm not training, but I'm actually in these finals, in two in a row,” Serena said. “This is the beginning. I'm not there yet. I'm on the climb still.”
So while Osaka might have the advantage of match-fitness and conditioning, Serena’s blank-slate mindset might prove to be the more dangerous element at play on Saturday.
“I feel like they definitely have a lot of respect for me, I have the same respect,” Serena said of her young potential final opponents. “However, these young ladies have been playing way longer consistently, so I just feel like they're at a little bit of an advantage.
“But I have an advantage of I have nothing to lose.”
2. The Miami Open was a long time ago.
The last time Serena and Osaka matched up, Osaka triumphed in very one-sided style, notching a 6-3, 6-2 victory over her childhood idol. Osaka was fresh off a run to the BNP Paribas Open title; Serena was in her second tournament back from maternity leave and far from her desired form.
But a lot has changed since that match.
Since then, Serena has steadily played herself back into championship readiness, and it’s all come together at the US Open, where she’s dropped just one set en route to the final.
Her improved movement and variety was on display against the tricky Anastasija Sevastova, coming up to the net 28 times in her 6-3, 6-0 victory.
“I feel like that's one thing I really worked on was my moving because it was a little suspect right after my return,” Serena admitted. “I know that I'm fast when I want to be. I can get any ball that I want to, if I want to. I still feel that way.”
And against ‘ace queen’ Karolina Pliskova, Serena faced 12 break points and saved 10 of them, her big serve coming up clutch with 13 aces to see off the No.8 seed 6-4, 6-3.
So although their head-to-head record reads 0-1, Osaka will be facing a brand new Serena when she takes the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium - one that looks more like her childhood hero than the player she faced in Miami
Will Osaka be able to handle the pressure - mentally and physically - on Championship Saturday? It’s a big ask for a 20-year-old contesting her first Grand Slam final.
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3. Osaka plays a game built for the big stages.
Where Serena says she has nothing to lose, Osaka plays like it. With a reliably big serve - hitting an average first serve of 107mph against Madison Keys in Thursday night's semifinal - and an effortlessly aggressive ground game, the 20-year-old doesn't so much walk through doors so much as tear them from their hinges.
"From the first game, it was like, ‘What’s going on? She’s hitting so hard, and I’m so late,'" noted the equally aggressive Aryna Sabalenka after their fourth round thriller.
Osaka has struck 97 outright winners in six matches and, even more impressively, forced 52 errors - speaking to her consistent weight of shot in each and every rally.
The BNP Paribas Open champion wouldn't be the first to wrest the spotlight away from an established favorite; it was less than 18 months ago when Jelena Ostapenko bludgeoned the French Open field and future World No.1 Simona Halep in a match all assumed the Romanian would win on experience.
"I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam," Osaka said on Thursday night. "Just the fact that it's happening, I'm very happy about it."
Still, she clarified that the dream doesn't end at the coin toss.
"I don't dream to lose, so that's how I'm answering your question."
4. That Miami match will help Osaka settle in to her first major final.
There are few worse times to play your first match against Serena Williams than the late stages of a Grand Slam tournament. Anastasija Sevastova found that out the hard way after their semifinal clash on Thursday.
"She has an amazing serve," she said. "It's tough to return. She makes so much pressure on the first, second ball, it's tough for me."
Osaka, who famously shared a selfie with Serena after her breakthrough tournament in Stanford four years ago, won't have that problem on Saturday; the two played in what was the 23-time Grand Slam champion's second tournament since marrying and giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Jr. While Williams was still finding her footing, Osaka was on fire, striking seven aces and breaking serve four times to beat the former World No.1 in Crandon Park.
"Surprisingly I felt sort of similar then to how I feel now," Osaka said when recalling their match in Miami. "I was very hyped for it, but when I steped onto the court, I just thought it was another match. I think I was able to play well then."
Serena has vastly improved since March, reaching back-to-back major finals and looking stronger with each match she plays, coming to net 28 times against Sevastova in the semifinals.
Osaka's plan? Bring back the Miami heat.
"I really feel like I don't want to overthink this match, so I'm not going to think that she's so much better than she was in Miami. I'm just going to go out there and play. Since I already know she's a good player, I don't want to be surprised if she plays better or not."
The months winning her first WTA title in Indian Wells were hectic at best for Osaka, feeling emotionally drained as early as the Volvo Car Open in Charleston. The summer hardcourt swing brought more disappointments as she felt the pressure to replicated her results in the California desert, admitting to feeling overwhelmed on Twitter after a tough loss to Maria Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open.
"I lost three matches in a row," Osaka said after the semifinals. "I was in the locker room and I was just crying because I thought, 'Wow, I'm really bad at tennis.'
"Then I came here and I was just thinking, I'm going to have fun and fight for every point that I can. I'll still here, so in a way I'm glad that I lost those three matches because I think my mentality would have been different coming into this tournament."
Physically strong and emotionally balanced, look out for Osaka as she renews a growing rivalry with her idol this weekend.