For a brief moment, Serena Williams almost cracked. It did not happen during her semi-final match Thursday against Anastasija Sevastova. There was little chance of that.
It came after her dominating 6-3, 6-0 victory, in an on-court interview, when the magnitude of her year-long journey – from the joy of giving birth to the fear of life-threatening postnatal complications and ultimately to the demanding path back to tennis success – crystallized in her mind.
She fought back the tears, but there was no hiding her sentiments after she had reached her first U.S. Open final in four years.
“I got a little emotional out there because last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital,” she said. “I think I was on my fourth surgery by now. What is today? I was on my third surgery. I had one more to go still.
“To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything. Now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row,” she said, referring also to her advance to the Wimbledon final earlier this summer. “Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still.”
Williams gave birth to a daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, in a cesarean delivery during last year’s Open and then endured multiple operations needed to address the complications. She returned to the tour in March, reached the Wimbledon final in July, and now this.
“Honestly,” she said, “it is remarkable. I couldn’t have predicted this at all.”
What she probably could have predicted is that her next opponent would be someone who revered Williams and wanted to be like her one day, because so many players on tour identify Williams as their hero and inspiration.
One such player is Naomi Osaka, a rising star from Japan whose overwhelming desire was to play Williams in the final. That is exactly what Osaka, the No. 20 seed, said in her on-court interview after she had beaten No. 14 Madison Keys (another Williams admirer), 6-2, 6-4, in their semi-final under the roof in Ashe Stadium.
Osaka said that when she was successfully serving to save all 13 of Keys’s break points, including six in a 22-point game in the second set, she kept telling herself how much she wanted to play Williams. She got her wish and will face the 17th-seeded Williams in a compelling match-up in the women’s final Saturday, when she will become the first woman born in Japan to play in a Grand Slam final.
After Osaka revealed her inner thoughts about those critical moments against Keys, she told her mother, watching from the team box, that she loved her. Then Osaka was asked if she had anything to say to Williams.
“I love you,” she said, bursting into nervous laughter.
Later, Osaka recalled that as a child she often dreamed about playing Williams in a Grand Slam final. But as reverent as Osaka seemed, she also gave a hint about her own competitive fire when she was asked how those dream matches turned out.
“I don’t dream to lose,” she replied.
Osaka, 20, was born Oct. 16, 1997, seven months after Williams, now 36, started her first season on the WTA tour. Osaka’s youthful comments, wry sense of humour and power game have endeared her to tennis crowds around the world, but Williams is not likely to be so smitten. She may even have revenge on her mind.
In their only meeting, Osaka beat Williams in Miami five months ago, in Williams’s second tournament back after missing more than a year because of maternity leave. At that time, Williams was rusty, out of shape and still trying to find her footing.
“I lost to Naomi last time we played, but I definitely wasn’t at my best,” she said.
Williams has increasingly found her footing and has delivered a dominating performance at the Open, marching into the final while dropping only one set and serving notice that she is back in top form.
“I just feel like there’s a lot of growth to still go in my game,” Williams said. “That’s actually the most exciting part.”
It is also welcome news to her legion of fans, many of whom filled Ashe Stadium on Thursday with a buzz of overwhelming support. With the roof closed for both matches because of rain, the buzz was louder than it has been all tournament, and it was almost all in Williams’s favour.
As she walked to the baseline to serve for the first time, the audience backed her with a loud roar. She fixed her hair, bounced the ball four times, served and then swatted a forehand long. The crowd, which expressed barely any interest in Sevastova, a 28-year-old from Latvia, fell silent.
But soon enough, Williams steadied herself and, in a surprising twist to demonstrate her versatility and movement, came to the net 28 times and won 24 of those points, improving her remarkable record in Grand Slam singles semi-finals to 31-5.
Her two most recent losses at the semi-final stage came at the Open. In 2015, she was stunned by Roberta Vinci, who thwarted Williams’s hopes of winning all four major titles in the same year. She then lost to Karolina Pliskova in the 2016 semi-finals.
But after four years, Williams is finally back in a U.S. Open final, and as she told the fans after her latest victory, she is just beginning.
“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future,” she said. “That is super-exciting for me.”