“I played obscenity,” she told me in an interview in April, avoiding a four-letter word. “I feel like I set my expectations incredibly high, and I feel like after Miami, I wanted to get more, not realistic expectations, but more reasonable expectations for me. And so I took some time off and then started training like a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot.”
Williams surely had Osaka in her mind’s eye during some of those training sessions.
“It was good that I played her, because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said Thursday. “I mean, 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.”
Her fitness and form have certainly improved. She has continued to struggle in regular tour events, but Williams has won 15 of the 16 Grand Slam singles matches she has played in this closely watched comeback season.
“She looks great right now,” Bajin said. “And if you look at her record in Grand Slams, she’s definitely a different player, particularly in a Grand Slam final, than she is in Miami or any other tournament. So I know Serena’s not going to give it to us, and I hope for Naomi that it’s going to be a good match.”
The potential is clearly there. Osaka, with a power baseline game inspired by Williams, has had a breakthrough season, rumbling through the draw to win the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March and then sweeping through the field here in New York. She has dropped only one set — to the dangerous newcomer Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round — and has routinely polished off opponents in about an hour.
On Thursday night, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, Osaka navigated the pressure and the potential pitfalls brilliantly to defeat Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4. Osaka saved all 13 break points she faced, often with decisive first serves or bold shotmaking.