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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, August 29, 2022

 
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Naomi Osaka expresses a powerful emotional reaction to Serena Williams' farewell and shares how the iconic champion shaped her career.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

NEW YORK—Parting can be painful.

Serena Williams' farewell to tennis at this US Open has had such a profound impact on colleagues, it drove Naomi Osaka to tears.

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Watching the 40-year-old superstar break down in tears following her Toronto loss to Belinda Bencic provoked water works in Osaka who is feeling the finality of Williams' impending departure.

"For some reason I just started crying because I felt it," Osaka told the media at the US Open. "I felt, like, when I played her in Australia people were like, That's the last time she's going to be in Australia. I was like, Dang, I really don't want this to be true. I kind of felt like she was gearing up for her last U.S. swing. I just started crying.

"Then she announced it the day later. I'm like, Oh, my God, this is what devastation must feel like. Yeah, it really is an honor just to keep watching her play."

Playing with remarkable poise and power, at 20-year-old Osaka slammed Williams, 6-2, 6-4, in the 2018 US Open final exploiting a stunning implosion from her tennis idol to make history as the first Japanese Grand Slam champion.




The 50th anniversary of the US Open final came to a controversial climax as a seething Serena clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who hit her with a game violation penalty staking Osaka to a 5-3 second-set lead.

A decade ago, Osaka was a fan sitting up in the cheap seats of Arthur Ashe Stadium dreaming of dueling Williams in the US Open final.

Realizing her dream of capturing a maiden major and defeating her tennis hero in the process, Osaka said she would not be a Grand Slam champion without the Williams sisters paving a path forward.

"I think that her legacy is really wide to the point where you can't even describe it in words," Osaka said. "Like, she changed the sport so much. She's introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I'm a product of what she's done. I wouldn't be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I'm, like, very thankful to her.

"I also was trying to figure out how to sum it into words. I honestly think that she's, like, the biggest force in the sport. That's not intentionally trying to, like, make Federer or Nadal smaller. I just think she's the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport. It's just really an honor just to watch her play. She's giving us a chance to, like, watch her more."



How will 23-time champion Serena cope with the emotion of playing her final Grand Slam in Flushing Meadows before 23,000 fans who won't want her amazing journey to end?

We may get a glimpse tonight when Williams faces 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in her US Open opener.

In the aftermath of her loss to reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati two weeks ago, Williams made a quick exit presumably to avoid another tearful breakdown.

Williams arrived in New York City early and has been training with coaching consultant and former Grand Slam doubles champion Rennae Stubbs, who has encouraged the six-time US Open champion to try different things in training. To that end, Williams, who typically does not play practice sets the weeks before a major, played practice sets with Maria Sakkari last week. In addition, Stubbs has urged Williams to play with positive emotion, try to enjoy the farewell experience and remind herself she is the greatest server in women's tennis history and if she can hold serve she can still compete.

Osaka calls Serena a game-changing champion who impacted her own career path.

"I've kind of talked to Serena a little bit. I just get really, like, nervous around her. It's really weird to idolize someone, then boom, you're just talking to them," Osaka said. "I don't know. I feel stressed out. But she's really sweet. She's, like, given me pointers sometimes. I wouldn't say tips, but it's more like advices.

"It's just really cool to now, like, be next -- not next to, but to be able to interact with someone like this, just see kind of how they're navigating through their own journey. I know she didn't call it a retirement, she called it like an evolution which I think is really cool. I feel like the term 'retirement' kind of means an end to something. But since she says 'evolution', it means like a continuing journey."


 

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