The first round in Miami wouldn’t usually throw up a clash between the winner of Indian Wells and a 23-time Grand Slam champion and former world #1. But due to Serena Williams’ maternity leave and Naomi Osaka’s unexpected run to the Indian Wells that is what spectators at Crandon Park will get. Whilst the debate over seeding will inevitably continue, for Williams there will be no time to consider it as she faces off against one of the most dangerous players in the draw. But who will come out on top?
Osaka and Williams have not yet met on Tour, with the Japanese only playing her first WTA main draw in 2014, nineteen years after Williams turned pro. Unsurprisingly then, it is Williams who is the more experienced of the two. The American has 72 WTA singles titles to her name and a further 23 in doubles. Her record in singles is 785-131 compared with Osaka’s 150-103. The 20-year-old’s title in Indian Wells last week was her first ever at WTA-level.
Osaka’s last match saw the young Japanese record the biggest win of her life. After a terrific tournament which had seen her upset world #5 Karolina Pliskova and then crush the world’s best Simona Halep in the last four she faced off against Daria Kasatkina in the final. The Russian had been in fine form herself, losing just two games against former #1 Kerber in the quarterfinals and defeating Williams in a three set thriller in the semis. But in the final she couldn’t get a handle on Osaka’s power as the then-world #44 powered to a 6-3 6-2 victory to lift the Indian Wells title.
For Williams it was a rather less successful week in the California desert. Playing on the Tour for the first time since the Australian Open last year, she made a good start defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5 6-3. She then scraped past 29th seed Kiki Bertens 7-6 7-5 to earn a match up with her elder sister, Venus. The younger Williams found her sister, the world #8, a step too far this early in her comeback as she lost 3-6 4-6.
How do they match up?
This match should be all about big hitting. Both players possess venomous groundstrokes and powerful serves. Osaka’s best shot is her forehand, which she is able to hit with both pace and spin. It was that shot that did the most damage on the way to her Indian Wells title. Neither Halep nor Kasatkina, both excellent counterpunchers, were able to cope with the shot and were on the losing end of bruising score lines as a result.
But Williams is far from short of power herself. It has been her ability to hit through all-comers that has fired her to so much success in her career. Williams has always been able to hurt players with her forehand and backhand both, and her serve is also a formidable weapon. Not only is the American regularly able to get it into the 120 mph’s she is also very accurate with it, making her incredibly difficult to break. She is also equipped with one of the best second serves on the WTA Tour.
At this stage in Williams comeback Osaka will be too hot to handle for the former world #1. There is no doubt that the American will find her way back to the top, but she looked rusty and short of match sharpness in Indian Wells, particularly against Venus. That does not bode well for her clash with Osaka, who played some stunning tennis in Indian Wells. If the Japanese can find anything like that level, she’ll get off to the perfect start in Miami.
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