Friday, September 7, 2018

Naomi Osaka to face her idol in U.S. Open championship match

Playing in your first major final has to be one of the most exciting, most stressful things imaginable for a professional tennis player. Having to play an opponent  in that final who is considered the best in the sport increases the tension. And if that opponent also happens to be your professional idol? Your head could (metaphorically) blow up.

Sascha Bajin (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
But that's just what Naomi Osaka will have to do tomorrow when she faces off against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. Osaka, who announced herself to the sports world when she won the BNP Paribas Open earlier this year, has transformed from a big-hitting power player to a big-hitting power player with court sense and a good serve.

This transformation is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to her decision to hire Sascha Bajin to be her coach. Bajin, who spent many years as Williams' hitting partner, has taken the raw talent of the young Japanese star and helped her to refine it. Theoretically, such refinement could turn Osaka into an especially dangerous player on the WTA tour.

But in the meantime, she has to deal with Serena Williams. Osaka and Williams have played each other only once before, in Miami this year, in the first round. Osaka won that match in straight sets, but that was when Williams was just returning from her pregnancy break. Osaka, who says she started playing tennis mainly because of Williams, told the media after the Miami match that her goal had been to avoid a double bagel.

That Serena Williams won't be the one on the other side of the net tomorrow. A very much back-on-track Williams will be seeking her 24th major singles championship, and it will take a mighty effort to deny her that.

Osaka does have a few things (besides her game) going for her: She has played Williams before (the victory part may not count that much), she has won a final on a very big stage, and she has a coach who probably knows more about the intricacies of Williams' game than anyone. Fans will cheer for Williams, but will also show a lot of appreciation for Osaka. who has won hearts and minds with her mature game and her goofy, unguarded charm.

When I sat down to write this, I thought of that popular cartoon image of a domestic cat looking in the mirror and seeing a lion. It may be like that for Osaka: She will look across the net and see what she may be able to become. And at the end of the day, one of them will roar.

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