What happens when the greatest player of our time is unable to bring her best game against a player at the top of her game?
Well, you get Naomi Osaka, who unseated Serena Williams in a stunning upset Wednesday to become the first Japanese player to reach a Grand Slam women’s singles final. Osaka, 20, then thrashed Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-1 on Saturday to win the U.S. Open and top Serena Williams, the 20-time Grand Slam singles champion.
The defeat left Williams needing to win the title to break Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. She couldn’t deliver. Instead, Osaka turned in arguably the greatest tennis performance of all time.
Osaka’s defeat came as quite a surprise considering the stage she was playing on. The 20-year-old Brooklynite looked unstoppable against a 23-time Grand Slam champion who looked drawn out and sluggish. The loss did not end Williams’ dominance, however. She will play Osaka’s fellow Japanese, 11th-seeded Kei Nishikori on Sunday for a place in the U.S. Open singles final.
Williams wasn’t just defeated but dismantled. She repeatedly hit shots wide and wide, missed with forehands and sailed her lines and wings. She struggled to stay in rallies and couldn’t keep up with the lightning-fast Osaka.
Osaka hardly looked troubled by Williams, taking over the match from the get-go and never looking back. A single miscue is rare for Osaka, a second-year player and a rookie at Grand Slams who is only known for a breakout performance at the 2017 Australian Open. She’s not that good yet, but in her first major final, she did it the tough way.
The semifinal victory put her in a position to dethrone world No. 1 and home-country favorite Simona Halep. The 28-year-old Halep looked dominant throughout the tournament, and seemed to be the safest bet to come away with the title, but Osaka is just 20. She’s got more in the tank to win major titles than most.
The U.S. Open is just the first step for Osaka. She only played in one Grand Slam singles final in her career before the U.S. Open, falling to Halep at the 2015 Australian Open. The next year, she reached the semi-finals of the U.S. Open, where she was beaten by Madison Keys. She followed that up with a run to the semifinals of the French Open last year, where she was defeated by Halep again.
Then, Osaka recovered from this past Australian Open to earn an easy two-set victory in the Wimbledon semifinals before losing to Venus Williams. That continued an unbelievable run for Osaka, who is no longer in shock after being defeated twice by Steffi Graf when they were both 20.
In a sense, her win over Williams is just the first step on a long path to history. It may not happen next year, but when she’s 20, she could easily make four Grand Slam singles finals in a row. Her next step should be to win the U.S. Open singles title.
With Williams looking defeated and lethargic, Osaka could make history. While we’re not sure what we would have done in that situation, I think we know what everyone watching the match would have done. Celebrate Osaka’s victory, and happy birthday to her.