US Open 2017: Naomi Osaka shows glimpses of idol Serena Williams in first top-10 conquest

For the first time since US Open 2010, there was no Serena Williams competing at Flushing Meadows. But there were fleeting glimpses of the tennis great on court, in the form of the rising teenage star Naomi Osaka. The 19-year-old Japanese-American player has long been pipped to be the ‘next Serena’ and she showed some of that potential by ousting defending champion Angelique Kerber.

There was that similar curly, flowing, bouncy hair, and a fondness for bright colours. Serena, who won her first US Open in 1999, was Osaka’s idol, and the Japanese-American player seems to have modelled her game on the unconventional swings of Serena’s.

The big serve, the stand-up-and-whack backhands, and then the flat sledgehammer forehands.

Naomi Osaka celebrates during her first round clash against Angelique Kerber. AP

Naomi Osaka celebrates during her first round clash against Angelique Kerber. AP

All of that potential talent and power was channelled as she overwhelmed Kerber, seeded six, 6-3, 6-1 in only 64 minutes to produce the upset of the tournament so far.

At the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday, two forces moving in opposite directions collided in the round one match. While Osaka has steadily been moving up the charts, Kerber has been going through an alarming descent. The 29-year-old is a pale shadow of a player that burst through in 2016, starting with a win over Serena in the final of the Australian Open. She made it to the title clash at Wimbledon as well before winning her second major of the year at the US Open.

The title she won at New York last year even propelled her to the world number 1 ranking — making her the first German since Steffi Graf to reach the summit. But she returned to the venue lacking in confidence. Great defense and steely determination had seen her outlast her competition last season, but she has struggled to keep the work-rate up this time around. Her best result at the Grand Slams this year have been fourth round finishes at Wimbledon and Australian Open, while she has succumbed to opening round defeats at the French Open and the US Open.

Her serve let her down in the first set as she picked up five double faults. Her ground strokes, save for a few flashes of brilliance, lacked the depth to exploit Osaka’s inexperience. It saw Osaka break the sixth seed thrice in the second set.

The match ended with the Kerber putting a limp forehand into the net.

Osaka meanwhile had the confidence to play through her shots, hitting with venom and precision as she went on to register her first ever win against a top 10 player on her 10th attempt. Her movement and strokeplay, however, still lacks finesse, but at 19, the gaps are sure to be filled with experience and training.

Born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, the youngster had moved with her family to New York when she was just three.

Though a dual-citizen, she’s plays under the Japanese flag despite not knowing the language. “I can understand way more Japanese than I can speak,” Osaka had told USA Today. “And when I go to Japan people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a black girl.”

She’s already considered the next big star for Japanese tennis, and she’s steadily making her way to the top with her results. The win against Kerber wasn’t the first time Osaka has threatened a top quality player.

Only three years ago, the then world number 406 came up against 2011 US Open singles champion Samantha Stosur in her maiden WTA main draw match. On that occasion, Osaka took two and a half hours to win the first round tie of the Stanford Classic.

The performances improved, and at the Australian Open last year, she made it past the qualifying stage to make the main draw of her first Grand Slam. She defeated Donna Vekic in the first, and 18th seed Elina Svitolina in the second round to announce her arrival on the big stage.

But Osaka, whose magnetic on-court persona is good news for the women’s game, had to bury a few demons as she reached the pointy end of the contest against Kerber. Last year at the US Open, on the same court, Osaka had crumbled to defeat in a blaze of errors after being 5-1 up in the third set against Madison Keys. The memory crept up again when she was leading against Kerber.

“When it was 4-1, I was walking here thinking, ‘I really hope I don’t do what I did here last year,’” she said on court.

But she went about her business, forcing the errors out of Kerber while hitting 22 winners in the match — all done with a blank expression and the slightest pump of fists. Her stone-faced demeanour is perhaps one thing that sets her apart from her idol. Osaka’s known to be shy and does not show much emotion both on and off court.

It changed a bit when she played Kerber. Yet, more so once her opponent’s forehand fell at the net. Finally, there was a smile.

Meanwhile, Serena herself expects the youngster to come up with a serious challenge. “I have seen her play,” she had told reporters at the 2016 Australian Open, where Osaka first made her Grand Slam breakthrough. “She’s really young and really aggressive. She’s a really good, talented player. Very dangerous.”

Serena would know.

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2017 16:03 PM

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