Naomi Osaka has already made history as the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final, and her success has caught the imagination in Japan. Now she must beat her hero to claim the US Open title.
The gulf in Grand Slam experience could barely be wider. Serena Williams has won 23 majors, while Naomi Osaka had never been beyond the third round before this year.
But the two Flushing Meadows finalists have more in common than is immediately apparent. While Osaka was born in the country she represents, she left when she was three years old and was raised in the United States. She holds both Japanese and American citizenship, and is far more adept in English than she is in her mother tongue.
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Both are powerful , aggressive players with strong serves and the influence of Williams' style on Osaka's game is clear. The 20-year-old grew up idolising Williams and, like her hero, has broken new ground in her country, partly as a result of her race.
Osaka is one of several young mixed-race athletes who are challenging Japan's traditional self-image as a racially homogenous country, including sprinter Asuka Cambridge and baseball player Yu Darvish and she's been widely celebrated by local media.
But all that will fade in to the background when the players take to the court on Saturday night. Williams has won six of her 23 major titles in New York, and with a victory would equal Margaret Court's Grand Slam titles record.
Osaka wasn't even a year old when Williams played in her first U.S. Open in 1998. She dreamed when she was younger of playing Williams in a Grand Slam final and has acheived the feat by dropping just 28 games over six matches.
"I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match," Osaka said.
"Yeah, I shouldn't really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent."
The pair met in March in Miami, when Williams was early in her return to tennis. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2, but both players know there's not much to take from the match given the timing.
"I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation," Williams said. "It was what it was. I mean, hopefully I won't play like that again. I can only go up from that match."
Williams will turn 37 later this month and remains unsure whether she'll fully get back to the player she was before her recent health scares. But even if it's not Saturday, she believes she'll claim Court's record.
"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."
mp (AFP, AP)