NEW YORK — When Naomi Osaka was a young child she dreamed about playing her idol in a Grand Slam final.
Now that fantasy has turned into a reality at the US Open. The 20-year-old Osaka will play 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams for the opportunity to become the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era.
The 20th-seeded Osaka earned her shot at the 36-year-old Williams after stunning Madison Keys, a US Open finalist last year, 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals Thursday night. The 17th-seeded Williams already had advanced to her 31st career Grand Slam final with ease, taking a 6-3, 6-0 semifinal decision over 19th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.
“Of course it feels a little bit, like, surreal,” admitted Osaka, about reaching her first Grand Slam final. “Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it.
“At the same time I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
When asked how the match ended in her dreams, Osaka seemed surprised the conclusion wasn’t a given.
“You already know,” she said, smiling. “You’re just asking me. I don’t dream to lose.”
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The good news for Osaka is she won’t head into the final without any knowledge about playing Williams as she actually holds a 1-0 lead in their career meetings.
The bad news is the first-round match they played at the Miami Open in March comes with something of an asterisk attached. Yes, it was an official 6-3, 6-2 win for Osaka, but it also occurred in the first month that Williams returned from maternity leave and was hardly showing championship form.
At the time Osaka was on a career high, just off of winning her first career title at the Indian Wells tournament.
“I really feel like I don’t want to overthink this match, so I’m not going to think that she’s so much better than she was in Miami,” Osaka said. “I’m just going to go out there and play. Since I already know she’s a good player, I don’t want to be surprised if she plays better or not.”
For her part, Williams would like to believe she picked up a few tips about Osaka during that Miami loss.
“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said. “I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation. It was what it was.
“Hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
Osaka, who is a dual Japanese-American citizen, has a history in New York, which makes this tournament the closest she’ll come to a home Grand Slam.
Born in Osaka, Japan, to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, the family moved to the United States when she was 3, living with her paternal grandparents in nearby Long Island.
Eventually the family moved to South Florida where Osaka and her older sister, Mari, could receive better tennis training.
For Williams, the US Open is familiar territory. She’s won the title here on six occasions, and if she succeeds to take a seventh trophy it will break her tie with Chris Evert for most US Open victories in the Open era.
In the big picture, Williams has way more at stake than Osaka.
The title would not only be her first Grand Slam as a mother but, a 24th career Grand Slam. That would draw her even with Margaret Court, the Australian who currently holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles.