WASHINGTON, March 22, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Naomi Osaka was anything but shy as she took out her childhood idol, former World No. 1 Serena Williams, 6-3, 6-2, in a featured first-round Stadium match at the Miami Open presented by Itaú in Key Biscayne, Florida, on Wednesday afternoon. It was like the continuation of a fairy tale come true for Osaka, who over the past two weeks has become the hottest player in women’s tennis.
The 20-year-old rising star from Japan, born of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, now lives and trains in Boca Raton, Florida. So, playing in the Miami Open is like a homecoming for Osaka. She showed great mental composure and hit all the right shots during her lopsided win against the 23-time Grand Slam champion, just three days after winning her first WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
Osaka wasn’t afraid to match Williams’s power with some potent shotmaking of her own. She won many extended rallies while managing to keep the eight-time Miami champion out of tempo and off balance. She won 31 of 40 (78%) of her first serve points, which included hitting seven aces, and capitalized on Williams’s weak second serve by converting 18 of 26 of those return opportunities.
In what must have seemed like a nightmare for Williams, on the final point of the match she whacked an easy shot that landed six feet past the baseline. Although Williams still managed to crack a smile and shared a brief handshake with Osaka at the net, it had to hurt. After all, she’s only been eliminated in the first round four times – and not since the 2012 French Open. She excited the Stadium court quickly.
Although showing much maturity and confidence, Osaka admitted after her victory during an on-court interview that she was extremely nervous in playing Williams. “I don’t know if anyone knows this but Serena is my favorite player. So, just playing against her was like a dream for me – and it was even better that I was able to win.” said Osaka. “I kind of wanted to just impress her. And I wanted to hear her say ‘Come on!’ one time. I think she did.”
Williams, who was playing in just her second WTA tour-level competition since returning from a year-long maternity leave, was broken four times – including her final two service games – during the 1 hour and 17 minute match. By the end, Williams was hitting passive, listless returns from both her forehand and backhand sides. Her overall rusty play was quite a contrast from someone who once dominated opponents at the Miami Open throughout her storied career. Unlike the past, this year she was reduced to accepting a wild card into the main draw and came in unseeded and ranked 491st after her layoff.
Until Osaka beat her, Williams had lost to just six players at the Crandon Park Tennis Center – Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Martina Hingis and Victoria Azarenka. All but Kuznetsova, who peaked at No. 2, have held the No. 1 ranking. Now, having lost two matches in a row, Williams has some work to do – and by losing in the first round, she’ll have some extended time off to get ready for her next tournament, in Charleston, South Carolina, starting April 2.
Shortly after the match ended, it was announced that Williams would not be holding a press conference to discuss her loss. In her defense, Howard Bryant, who writes about tennis and other sports for ESPN.com, tweeted:
Should not be penalized for having a child…her draws are going to be ruthless… pic.twitter.com/IGBXu4RaRd
— Full Dissident (@hbryant42) 21. März 2018
A couple of hours after the match ended, Williams released a 61-word statement through the WTA:
“Every tournament is an opportunity for me to better understand the areas I need to improve to be my best. Naomi played a great match and I learn something each time I play. I look forward to continuing my return by progressing every day. I’m so grateful for my fans who continue to support me every step of this incredible journey.”
As for Osaka, she’ll have Thursday to savor her big win over Williams. Then, it’s back to work for her when she plays World No. 4 Elina Svitolina in the second round on Friday. Her road to winning the second leg of the “Sunshine Double” won’t be easy. Yet, for someone who has lost just one set total in her last eight matches – which includes impressive victories over World No. 5 Karolina Pliskova and World No. 1 Simona Halep – the fairy tale just keeps getting better.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.