Serena Williams falls to Naomi Osaka in Miami Open
Naomi Osaka is in the form of her life.
In the past fortnight, four current and former world No. 1s have entered her path, and four have fallen by the wayside.
And if the manner in which the young Japanese star stormed to her first major title in Indian Wells last week was impressive, what stood out on Wednesday was the confidence and style with which she swept aside Serena Williams at the Miami Open.
Osaka had never faced Williams before, but — like so many players of her generation — had grown up idolizing the American.
“I was extremely nervous coming on to the court. I don’t know if anybody knows this but Serena is my favorite player,” Osaka said after the match.
“So just playing against her is kind of like a dream for me. I’m very grateful I was able to play her and it is even better that I was able to win.”
The match lasted just 77 minutes as the 20-year-old stormed to victory over the 23-time grand slam winner in straight sets, 6-3 6-2.
‘I wanted her to know who I am’
For Osaka, the blueprint for victory was simple, and it was looking straight back at her from the other side of the net.
“Sometimes when I am in a really hard position when I’m serving, I’m like, `What would Serena do?'” Osaka explained.
“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,” she explained.
“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.”
It’s fair to say if she didn’t know before, Williams certainly knows who Osaka is now. The Japanese player has had quite the year — a 14-4 winning record in 2018, rising 50 ranking places to 22 in the world in less than two months.
Appropriately born in Osaka, Japan, the 20-year-old now resides in Florida, recently teaming up with Caroline Wozniacki’s former coach, Sascha Bajin.
Given the dearth of success for Japan in the women’s game, Osaka has also captured the attention of the country, which has not produced a female player in the world top 10 since 2004.
A tough route back to the top
On Serena’s part, back-to-back defeats may be hard to bear — she left the court without addressing the media — but she was gracious in defeat, smiling and congratulating Osaka on her well-earned victory.
Many commentators, including tournament director James Blake, had pointed to Serena’s tough opening draw as a fault in the tennis system as the American returns from pregnancy.
With no protection given to her previous No. 1 ranking, Serena’s year out of the game has seen her drop to 491 in the world, leaving her unseeded and facing an arduous route back to the top.
Osaka became the lowest ranked player ever to beat Serena in Miami, which perhaps says as much about the 36-year-old’s consistent brilliance as it does about the shock of Osaka’s victory.
She now faces world No. 4 Elina Svitolina in the second round on Friday.
Sharapova opens up on injury
En route to her Indian Wells triumph, Osaka’s first victim was Maria Sharapova, who has announced she is taking some time out of the game in order to recover from injury.
Responding to a tweet from a fan who felt aggrieved about her pulling out of Russia’s upcoming FED Cup tie, five-time grand slam champion Sharapova detailed the extent of her injuries, which include an air pocket in her lung, which is currently preventing her from flying.
“I don’t sign up to anything in my career unless I am fully committed to it,” she tweeted.
“Besides numbing my left forearm 30 minutes before my first match at Indian Wells in order to get through the match without any recurring pain I have had in past months, I also found out I had an air pocket in my lung from which I wasn’t allowed to fly for 3 weeks from first findings, per doctors, until it healed.”
She added: “I will be doing everything I can to get healthy, fit and ready to compete.”