Serena Williams was gone from the Miami Open after just one hour on court Wednesday, ousted 6-3, 6-2 in the first round by one of her biggest fans, 20-year-old rising star Naomi Osaka, a Boca Raton resident whose father is a Haitian-American filmmaker and mother is Japanese. Like Williams, she also has an older sister who also plays professional tennis.
Four years after nervously approaching Williams in a Stanford locker room to ask for a selfie, Osaka dominated her idol from start to finish with power-packed serves, heavy ground strokes and composure that belied her age and experience.
Osaka, who was as entertaining in her interview as she was during the match, admitted she was nervous during the first three games.
“Because she’s the main reason why I started playing tennis, and I have seen her on TV so many times and I have always been cheering for her, so for me to play against her and just sort of trying to detach myself a little bit from thinking that I’m playing against her and just try to think I’m playing against just a regular opponent was a little bit hard for me,” Osaka said.
Her goal, she said, was to impress Williams, “not lose 6-0, 6-0” and to force her to yell “C’mon!” at least once during the match.
“It’s weird if you grow up watching someone and wanting to be exactly like them, and then you have the chance to play them and it’s sort of this respect thing,” she explained. “But you also want to win really bad. I don’t really know how to describe it, but I just wanted her to, in the end, like, after the match, just know who I am and stuff.”
Williams definitely now knows who Osaka is, and stuff.
It was Williams’ earliest-ever exit at the Key Biscayne tournament. She had never lost before the Round of 16.
Immediately after the match, Williams — a 23-time Grand Slam champion and eight-time tournament winner in Miami — bolted from the grounds without doing a mandatory press conference. A few hours later, she issued a one-paragraph statement saying “Naomi played a great match” and “I look forward to continuing my return by progressing every day” and thanking fans for their support.
Williams, 36, entered the tournament to much fanfare, as she recently returned from a 13-month maternity leave after having a baby girl in September. Because she lost her seeding during her absence, she wound up having to open the tournament against Osaka, the hottest player on tour in recent weeks.
Osaka, ranked 22, is coming off her first WTA title in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. She didn’t drop a single set at Indian Wells and defeated top-ranked Simona Halep, five-time major winner Maria Sharapova, and Grand Slam finalists Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova.
Three hours after winning that title, she found out she would face Williams on Wednesday.
“I have never been that nervous to play a specific person,” she said. “Just to see her in person...I was kind of new to the tour when she left [on maternity leave]. I haven’t really seen her around a lot. So, it’s kind of weird to see her not on TV for me, so to, like, shake her hand and stuff, I thought it was pretty cool.”
Asked what Williams told her at the net, Osaka smiled and replied: “She said, ‘Good job,’ and stuff. I kind of blanked out.”
She said Williams’ power was exactly what she expected. “She hit a lot of shots that made me like, I almost fell over [smiling[. I was, like, ‘Whoa, that’s a Serena shot.’ ’’
Osaka, who is 5-11, said in a way, Williams inspired her to fire aces and big serves at key moments in the match. “Sometimes when I am in a really hard position when I’m serving, I’m, like, `What would Serena do?’ But I was playing her. I was literally just thinking `What would Serena do?’’’
Osaka was delighted when Williams unleashed one of her trademark “C’mon!” screams.
“You know, because, sometimes she plays matches where she doesn’t say, ‘C’mon!’ at all, and that’s a little bit sad, because you think, ‘Is she trying?’ So, I just wanted her to say, ‘C’mon!’ once, because I knew that maybe she would be trying a little bit. Once I heard the first ‘C’mon!’ I was, like, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ [smiling].
Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan, but the family moved to New York when she was 3 and her sister, Mari, was 5, to be closer to her father’s Haitian family (her cousin, Zachary Herivaux, plays for Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution). Her father, Leonard Maxime Francois, was born in Jacmel, Haiti, and attended NYU. The family eventually moved to Fort Lauderdale, where the Osaka girls trained with coach Harold Solomon. She currently trains at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton.
She has a dual U.S.-Japanese passport but represents Japan because she got more financial support from the Japanese tennis association, according to reports.
Though her name is new to most tennis fans, there were signs the past few years that she was emerging. In 2016, she recorded a 125 mph serve at the U.S. Open and reached the third round of the Australian and French Opens. At the 2017 U.S. Open, as a wild card, she stunned defending champion Angelique Kerber in the first round, 6-3, 6-1.
Asked after her big win Wednesday whether it bothered her fans were rooting for Williams, she said: “No. If I was watching I’d be cheering for Serena, too.”
In Wednesday’s day matches, American Ryan Harrison lost 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-4) to Joao Sousa of Portugal and American Tyler Fritz lost 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 to Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France. On the women’s side, former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who is back on tour after having a baby, breezed past American Cici Bellis 6-3, 6-6.