Fearless Osaka cherishes dream come true

US Open champion Naomi Osaka triumphs in emotional final against idol Serena Williams

Naomi Osaka kissing the trophy US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Michael Beattie

“She’s not afraid of centre stage,” Sascha Bajin said of his young charge, Naomi Osaka, at the start of the hard-court summer. “That’s why I believe she has greatness within her.”

On a hot and at times heated night in New York, Osaka proved her coach right. Japan can now hail its first Grand Slam singles champion after the 20-year-old produced a fearless performance on the grandest of stages, against the grandest of champions, to claim the second title of a once-fledgling career now in full flight.

Naomi Osaka holdinh her trophy with Serena Williams in the background US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
"Doesn't feel that real right now"

As a kid who grew up in Long Island, watching from the cheap seats on Arthur Ashe Stadium, a young Naomi daydreamed about beating her idol Serena Williams. Could she possibly have dreamt of outrunning and outgunning the 23-time Grand Slam champion in such style, of a 6-2 6-4 scoreline in a US Open final, of maintaining her laser focus amid tumultuous scenes that surely would have tested the breadth of her imagination?

“It doesn’t really feel that real right now,” admitted Osaka, who like Williams went up to collect the trophy in tears after a surreal climax to the match. “I think maybe in a few days I'll realise what I've done. I just feel like I had a lot of emotions, so I had to kind of categorise what was which emotion.”

The 2018 season has delivered three first-time Grand Slam champions: Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open, Roland-Garros winner Simona Halep, and now Osaka, the youngest US Open champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006. She dropped just one set and a grand total of 34 games over the course of the two weeks, giving up just five breaks of serve in seven matches. These are Serena-esque numbers.

More than that, it was a Serena-eqsue performance. From the first point of the final, Osaka proved she was prepared to live with Williams from the baseline by winning a lengthy rally. With Williams misfiring on serve and spraying errors, Osaka broke first and broke again to lead 4-1, before firing a cross-court forehand winner on the run that even Williams had to applaud.

Umpire Carlos Ramos, Serena Williams, the referee during 2018 US Open final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
So much happening across the net

The six-time champion began to build some momentum early in the second set, but Osaka saved a break point at 1-2 with a lung-busting 19-shot rally that left her opponent worn down and incredulous. Williams would earn a break, but Osaka hit back immediately and broke for a fourth time as the finish line came into sight.

“She made a lot of shots,” acknowledged Williams, who was handed both a point penalty and game penalty in the second set after a series of transgressions. “She was so focused. Whenever I had a break point, she came up with some great serve. Honestly, there's a lot I can learn from her from this match.”

Williams received code violations for coaching – which she denied – racquet abuse, and verbal abuse, after calling umpire Carlos Ramos a thief for docking her a point. With so much happening across the net, it took a special kind of mental fortitude to concentrate on the task at hand. Perhaps not her strong suit in the past, Osaka rose to the occasion brilliantly.

A fired-up Williams held to love when serving to stay in the match at 5-3 after the game penalty, but Osaka reset after the change of ends, sealing the title with a rasping service winner and immediately pulling her visor over her tear-filled eyes before Williams met her at the net with a warm hug.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams during the trophy presentation US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
“I felt like a little kid again"

“To have a huge reaction isn't really me in the first place. It just still didn't really feel that real. So for me it just felt like a normal match, just walking up to the net. But it's Serena that's on the other side. She hugged me, and it was really awesome.

“I know that she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It's on the commercials, it's everywhere. Like, when I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I'm not a Serena fan. I'm just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net...”

Osaka took a beat to hold back the tears once more. “Anyway, when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”

Life is set to change for Osaka

Japanese and Haitian flags fluttered in pockets throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium as she made her way across the court to celebrate with Bajin and her team before sharing a long, tearful embrace with her mother. “She sacrificed a lot for me, and it means a lot for her to come and watch my matches because she doesn’t normally do that,” Osaka said, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “One person I didn’t see was my dad, because he doesn’t physically watch my matches – he walks around, so I’ll see him later.

“It was always my dream to play Serena in the US Open final, so I’m really glad that I was able to do that – I was really grateful that I was able to play with you, thank you,” Osaka told Williams, signing off with a bow.

Life is set to change for Osaka, and not just because of the $3.8m cheque heading to her bank account. Asked if she was ready for the reaction to her historic victory when she arrives in Tokyo for her next tournament, she joked: “Apparently not, because people keep asking me that.”

Naomi Osaka winning the 2018 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Sleep and video games

But beyond her skyrocketing profile, and a debut in next week’s WTA top 10, Osaka accepts that her status as a Grand Slam champion has to have an impact on her mentality. Her job, as a player who readily admits to getting down on herself, is to find a way to harness the change for good.

“I don't think you can win a Grand Slam and not be confident in yourself,” she said. “But that's not my immediate mindset. I think for me, I just really want to have fun with every match that I play, because tennis is a game. But professional tennis players, sometimes I think we lose sight of that.”

The greatness within Osaka was on full display on a dream-like Saturday night in New York, her one-time home town. But don’t expect this true-blue millennial to change overnight. She’s still the young woman who remembers writing a report on Serena in third grade; who earlier this year tweeted that it was just her luck that Beyonce would be performing in Miami during the US Open; and who, when asked how she was going to celebrate a victory with the capacity to change her life, said with a smile and not a moment’s hesitation: “Sleep.”

Perchance to dream? “I'm not really a social person like that,” she added, ever the introvert, on the muted celebrations. “Maybe I'll play video games.”