In a clash to decide the US Open, six-time former champion Serena Williams takes on Naomi Osaka, who is appearing in a Major final for the first-time in her career. History is on the line for both, with Williams looking to equal Margaret Court’s tally of 24 Grand Slam titles, whilst Osaka is seeking to become the first Japanese player to win a Slam in singles. They have met once before, with Osaka winning 6-3 6-2 in Miami. But what does she need to do to secure a repeat of that outcome and what can Williams do to change it?
1 Williams’ first serve percentage
The key shot for Williams all tournament has been her first serve and so far no opponent has had an answer for it. The American has fired down 64 aces, which is 29 more than her nearest rival Madison Keys. It would also see her tied for fifth place in the men’s ace race with the giant South African Kevin Anderson. Perhaps even more important than her ace count, however, is how hard Williams has made it to win points against her first serve.
So far in New York when she has landed it she has won the point 78% of the time, with 167 points out of 214 going her way. And just how important a weapon it is for her in terms of setting the point up is revealed by the number of points she is winning behind her second serve which drops to just 52%. Not an alarming number, but it is one that suggests she’s struggling to dominate opponents off the ground like she did at the peak of her powers.
Osaka has been less reliant on her first serve. She has been winning a respectable 72% of the points when she lands her first serve, but where she has been particularly impressive is behind her second delivery. There she has mustered an impressive 59% of the points won, which sees her trailing only Monica Niculescu who lost in the first round. That smaller differential between first and second serve points won indicates that Osaka has been better off the ground.
2 Williams at the net vs Osaka from the baseline
Williams is well-aware that she has not yet found her best game. She described herself as playing at about 60% of her full capabilities for the tournament so far. That seems an accurate description of every area of her game except her first serve and her volleys. As a result, it will be on those weapons that she relies most heavily to get her across the line. And whilst how many first serves Williams makes is broadly beyond Osaka’s ability to influence, the Japanese can keep her out of the forecourt.
The way to do that is to stay aggressive and keep the ball deep. Against Sevastova, who has nothing like the sort of power that Osaka can call on, Williams was able to dictate the majority of the time, particularly in the second set. And she was able to keep the points short by finishing them off at the net, rather than by trying to hit through Sevastova, who covers the court very well. But the Latvian had very little success in stopping Williams coming to the net and winning points there.
The American came to the net 28 times and won 24 of those points. She was particularly effective there in the second set, winning 13 of the 26 points she won in that set at the net. The numbers also suggest that it could be an effective strategy to deploy against Osaka, who has not faced it much thus far. Of her last three opponents, only Sabalenka has come to the net more than 10 times. Encouragingly for Williams, the Belarusian won the point 77% of the times that she did come in.
3 Osaka’s mental strength
This is the biggest match of Osaka’s career by some margin. She is competing against one of the greatest players of all time, who is her personal idol, in her first Grand Slam final on the biggest court in tennis with the majority of the crowd almost certain to be supporting her opponent. That she will be nervous is inevitable. But it is how she manages those nerves that will be crucial in determining the outcome of this match.
A good start will be essential for her. If she can find some rhythm early on and hold in her first few service games, she should be able to find her way in the match. Fortunately for her, Osaka has managed to control her nerves well so far in the biggest matches she has played. She made an electric start in the final in Indian Wells in March and ended up winning it for the loss of just five games. She also displayed admirable mental fortitude against Keys in the semifinals.
In that match, Osaka quite incredibly saved all of the 13 break points she faced. But neither Keys nor Kasatkina, who she beat in the final in Indian Wells, have anything like the big-match experience of Serena Williams. She is playing in her 31st Grand Slam final and she has lost just seven of the previous 30. Expect her to do all she can to unsettle Osaka early and get an early break. If she can, it might just swing the match in her favour.
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