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Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and One Last Shared U.S. Open

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A bit greater than 24 hours had passed since Serena Williams captivated Arthur Ashe Stadium together with her opening-round triumph and bedazzled tennis dress, wrap and hair, and now it was Naomi Osaka’s turn.

A yr ago, with Williams sidelined with a hamstring injury, Osaka had brought a lot heat to the U.S. Open, even before her third-round loss led her to announce that she needed to step away from tennis since it brought her so little joy and a lot sadness, even when the game had allowed her to eclipse Williams because the highest-paid female athlete.

Now, for what she says is the last time, Williams is back, and over again, these two megastars that transcend their sport are connected, just as they’ve been since a fireworks-filled final at Ashe 4 years ago evolved into each a torch-passing and a moment that has linked them through their careers.

Osaka, who lost to the Nineteenth-seeded Danielle Collins, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in a match that bled into early Wednesday morning, is struggling to get out of a protracted slump as she battles nagging injuries and will not reclaim her magic the best way Williams did Monday night.

“That is what makes you excellent, having the ability to win matches like this even when it’s in the primary round,” Osaka said after coming up short.

The loss meant a second consecutive premature exit from a tournament that after looked like it might be her grandest stage for years, and it happened despite all those connections she embraced over the past week to the role model she still reveres, who will probably be back within the highlight Wednesday night.

“I’m a product of what she’s done,” Osaka said Saturday in her pretournament news conference. “I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family.”

Like every part else at this tournament, Osaka’s match seemed peripheral to Serena Williams’s narrative, even when Osaka’s loss had its own significance. For the time being, Osaka is more famous than she is successful at the sport that gave her stardom, which could turn out to be an issue if those two phenomena don’t align soon, and now she is going to must do it without her tennis guidepost on tour together with her.

Since Williams delivered her intentionally vague announcement that she would stop playing competitive tennis in some unspecified time in the future after this U.S. Open, few players — maybe even, few people — have taken the news as hard or tried to gather these last morsels of Williams’s skilled tennis life as much as Osaka has.

Sensing that end may not be far-off, Osaka cried as she watched Williams’s first match in Toronto earlier this month on the National Bank Open, and she or he cheered Williams on during her first-round match on the Western and Southern Open in Ohio the next week.

It was much like how she felt after she beat Williams within the semifinals of the Australian Open last yr, a loss that caused Williams to interrupt down during her news conference and end it after just just a few questions. On the time, Osaka sensed that was the last time Williams was going to play in Australia.

Assuming Williams keeps her word, Osaka’s intuition could have aged well over again. The morning after the first-round Toronto match, Williams’s announcement in Vogue that the tip was imminent hit Osaka hard.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ that is what devastation must feel like,” Osaka said of what she felt as she read the news. “It truly is an honor just to maintain watching her play.”

Osaka was watching over again Monday night. She donned a baseball cap and a pair of round glasses and sat roughly 20 rows up from the court, even to the baseline, within the front row of a company box but within the open air, with fans passing within the aisle inside an arm’s length of her.

Coco Gauff, one other young Black player who has credited Williams’s profession with providing inspiration and a road map for her own path in tennis, was within the stands as well. Gauff, who had won her first-round match Monday afternoon, had planned to observe Williams’s match on television, but modified her mind, deciding she didn’t need to miss the moment dedicated to the lady who had given her belief.

“It made me feel that I could do it,” she said Monday of learning about how Williams and her sister Venus had grown up poor in Compton, Calif., and broken into what had been an overwhelmingly white sport. “I hope that any person can take a look at me and say that I feel like I can do it because she did it.”

Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, is a Japanese national, but, like Williams, she grew up largely as a Black woman in America, but their links go far beyond that.

Like Williams, Osaka was largely coached by her father, who has spoken of copying the playbook Richard Williams essentially wrote for creating female champions. Osaka also has an older sister who played skilled tennis; Mari Osaka, 26, retired last yr.

For much of their childhoods, Mari was the higher player, though Naomi appeared to have a better ceiling due to her speed, just as Serena Williams did. The primary mountain each needed to climb was getting adequate to play with after which beat their older sisters.

Like Williams, Naomi Osaka has not been shy about speaking out on social justice issues, especially in 2020, following a series of police killings and shootings of Black people. Each have been unafraid to tackle the tennis establishment.

They played one another five times. Osaka won three of the matches, most memorably the 2018 U.S. Open final, when an overmatched Williams was penalized for receiving coaching and ended up in an unsightly dispute with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. Osaka ended up in tears in the course of the trophy ceremony as the gang howled on the final result.

That was the primary of Osaka’s 4 Grand Slam singles titles. It was the second of the 4 finals Williams lost while on the precipice of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles championships.

Williams has not won any Grand Slam singles titles since then. Osaka has won three more, including the 2020 U.S. Open, and was on the cusp of taking the torch from Williams and full control of the game until her struggles with mental health prevented her from playing all but just a few matches in the course of the last six months of 2021.

This April, she made the ultimate of the Miami Open, her best result since her comeback began in January, but battled an Achilles’ tendon injury that derailed her preparation for the French Open and compelled her to drag out of Wimbledon.

After just a few hard-fought losses this summer, Osaka badly desired to play into the later rounds of the U.S. Open, and she or he got here out on fire, lacing serves and forehands and digging balls out of the corners as she sprinted to an early 3-0 lead, looking just like the Osaka of two years ago. But Collins quickly matched every ounce of Osaka’s power and proved just a bit of bit sharper, and possibly a bit luckier within the crucial first-set tiebreaker. She floated a desperate lob that caught the back of the baseline and knuckled a mis-hit service return that Osaka couldn’t handle to clinch the set.

Within the second set, Osaka took one other early lead only to succumb to a different rush from Collins, as her forehand grew a bit of too loose on an evening with so little margin for error. Collins gambled with big swings that paid off most of the time, and more often than Osaka’s gambles did. With Collins serving for the match, Osaka had two shots to get back on serve but couldn’t find the winners she needed and sent a backhand long to provide Collins the match.

“I just have to relax a bit of bit,” Osaka said while the loss was still raw. “There’s lots of random chaos in my head immediately.”

She paused a slow walk off the court and an early departure from the tournament to sign some courtside autographs.

Then it was over, and the tournament highlight was back on Williams over again.

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