When Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka emerged as the winners of Thursday’s semifinals in the women’s draw, Tennis with an Accent lead editor and writer Matt Zemek made the following observation regarding Saturday’s final: “Not just a meeting of generations, not just a possible passing-of-the-torch moment, but two players bonded in and through inspiration and respect.”
Matt was aptly referring to the admiration that each player has for the other. Despite the controversy that overshadowed the tennis being played for most of the second set, that mutual respect continued between the two women throughout the match and the trophy ceremony.
Two paragraphs in the form of a notice are needed on how I will proceed with this postmatch take. Personally, I am not a fan of drawing grandiose, long-term conclusions out of one match, so I will limit my analysis to what happened on the court, but that does not mean such narratives are misplaced if they are limited to tennis. For example, in this case, when an up-and-coming youngster rises to the occasion and topples one of the greatest champions, if not the greatest, our sport has seen, there is a story that goes beyond the match and the tournament. If there is a more conspicuous entry to the ranks of the elites than becoming a major title-holder the way Osaka did, I am willing to hear all about it. But in this piece, my focus will largely on the Xs and Os of how Naomi managed to score the straight-set victory over Serena.
I will also do the same when commenting on the unfortunate developments of the second set. You will not see dramatic social statements or clickbait-oriented sentences in this piece. There are plenty of those in the media if that is your thing. Even non-tennis experts will jump in this one since the ratings pie is there for them to seize. That has never been our way at Tennis with an Accent, and it will remain so in this match analysis. As for the larger ripple effects of this encounter, I would advise tennis fans to keep an eye out for Matt’s piece later today which, I can comfortably promise, will not engage either in the trivial pursuit of riling up emotions. Quality, substantial tennis coverage is our central goal at Tennis with an Accent.
Paragraphs over — back to the match…
Let me quickly share (as I did prior to the match’s beginning on Twitter) what I thought Serena needed to get done to win this match. Considering how solid Osaka had been from the baseline throughout the tournament, she probably needed to avoid long rallies. This meant she had to take risks early in rallies and take advantage of returns that may land short behind her powerful serve, the best in tennis. She also had to use placement on serve to force Osaka to return on the stretch, rather than with her feet set. For example, the wide serve on the deuce side or the power-serve to the “T.” Lastly, she needed to approach the net when the opportunity presented itself (not force it), not because Naomi does not pass well — she does — but because she needed to send a message to Osaka that hitting short balls would result in pressure being applied on her.
As for Osaka, what she needed to do was simpler than the above for Serena, although that did not mean that it was easier. She had to keep the ball deep and remain error-free, thus forcing Serena to come up with spectacular winners. If Serena did (which is certainly not out of the realm of possibility), she could always take her hat off to the champion at the end of the match.
Examples of just about everything mentioned above for Serena could be found in the first game of the match, when she served.
The match began with a rally that ended with a backhand down-the-line miss by Serena on a winner attempt. A lot was going to depend on Serena’s winner-to-error ratio in these winner attempts from the baseline during rallies. Another such rally took place two points later at 0-30, and this time, Serena zoomed a forehand down-the-line winner. Those two points pretty neatly summed up one of the main determinants of the match.
Serena served two wide serves in the game – at 15-30 to the ad side, and at deuce to the other – and won both points with an ace and service winner. She added a high-velocity serve to the “T” at 30-30 and won the point on an approach-shot winner when Osaka returned short. Serena closed the game again at the net when she earned a short return from Osaka on a wide serve.
Success on wide serves (two for two): Check.
Coming to the net when the opportunity is there (two for two): Check.
Rallies dictated by whether Serena takes a risk and hits a winner or makes an error (one for two): Check.
Now it was Osaka’s turn to respond on her serve, especially after going down 0-30, much the same way Serena did in the first game. At 15-30, a rally of crosscourt backhands occurred, and Serena missed one in the net. At 30-30, she kept Serena at bay again with three shots deep by the baseline and forced her into another error. Another rally just like that, this time ending with a winner to the open court, and the score was leveled at 1-1.
By that time, it was a straightforward match with both players’ tasks being clearly defined following the first two games. Osaka held her end of the bargain for the rest of the match. Unfortunately for Serena, she did not. Rally after rally, Osaka challenged Serena to come up with one winner after another, and Serena misfired more times than she produced winners. She rarely hit a good enough shot to force Naomi into an error.
Below are the numbers of total rallies per game that went three shots or over, and how many of those ended with Serena’s errors, from 1-1 to the end of the set – reminder: I keep my own count of unforced errors and do not use the official stats.
In the 1-1 game, there were four such rallies and three of them ended in Serena’s unforced errors. Naomi won the game.
In the 2-1 game, there were two such rallies, both ending by Osaka forcing Serena into errors. Naomi won the game.
In the 3-1 game, there were three such rallies, two won by Osaka on Serena’s unforced errors. Naomi won the game.
In the 4-1 game, Serena had enough and decided to go for broke. She needed to stop the freefall somehow. She tried creating extra energy for herself with two loud “Come on!” yells at different points of the game and taking mammoth cuts on returns and groundstrokes. She missed two such returns at 15-30 and at deuce. She did have some success in the rallies; she won two of them with a straight winner from the baseline on her forehand and another won at the net. She lost two others on a terrific passing shot by Osaka and an unforced backhand error. It did not help that Naomi produced an ace when she was down a break point, then another winning first serve on game point for her, also winning that game.
In the 5-1 game, there was one rally and Serena won it on a rare unforced error by Osaka. Naomi also committed two errors on makeable returns on Serena’s second serves. Serena won the game.
In the 5-2 game, Serena continued her attempts to go for broke on returns, missing three out of four such attempts, mainly because Osaka made four out of five first serves to close out the set 6-2.
During that span of six games featuring some high-velocity rallies, Osaka made only three unforced errors, all coming in the only game that Serena won at 1-4 down. Put yourself into Serena’s shoes and you can perhaps imagine how heavy the pressure must have weighed on her to produce one risky shot after another to gain some traction during rallies. It’s not as though she did not try, but every time she did, Naomi had an immediate answer.
The above can be summarized in one sentence if nitty-gritty analysis is not your thing. Osaka executed her game plan to perfection while Serena’s was hampered by Naomi’s quality ground game, resulting in a high number of unforced errors. As a secondary reason, but not unimportant, let’s add the fact that Serena’s first serve landed in at a dismal 38% in the first set while Osaka’s kept on ticking like a Swiss clock at 73%. This allowed Osaka to get into those rallies on return games and hamper Serena’s progress when she tried to take charge of the points on Naomi’s serving games. The resulting lopsided set was over in 34 minutes in favor of the 20-year-old Japanese player.
The second set began much differently from the first. Osaka committed three unforced errors in the first game and Serena held serve. Serena started to come on strong with fewer errors and more pressure applied during rallies. She elevated the first-serve effectiveness, hit more accurately, and even began using drop shots and angles, as well as hitting direct winners on returns, all signs that she was beaming with confidence by the time she built a 3-1 lead in the second set. Osaka, for her part, was rattled. Her body language showed signs of frustration for the first time in the match. She committed 10 unforced errors in those four games, more than double the amount of her total in the first set.
During that span, there was also a code violation issued to Serena by chair umpire Carlos Ramos when he spotted Patrick Mouratoglou giving her hand signals. The camera showed the replay of what he did, and it was the right decision by Ramos. It would turn out to be an important moment for what was to come later.
Osaka held serve to get back to 2-3, but Serena built a quick 30-15 lead. Then, out of nowhere, she committed two double faults in a row and missed a routine backhand in the net. In frustration, she slammed her racket to the ground and broke it. Ramos issued another code violation for racket abuse which resulted in a point penalty, giving Osaka a 15-0 lead to start the next game.
This is when the match began to truly derail from Serena’s perspective. She was furious with the umpire, not realizing she was penalized a point. After a heated exchange with the umpire, play resumed. Osaka held serve and led 4-3. Another heated exchange took place between Serena and the umpire. During the changeover, Serena accused the umpire of being “a thief.” Ramos issued a third code violation which warranted a game penalty. Serena was visibly upset and asked the head referee to come to the court. Her appeal to the head referee did not bear fruit and the match resumed a few minutes later with Osaka leading 5-3, one game away from the title.
Serena held serve with four straight points to force Osaka to serve out the match at 5-4. Despite being in her first major final, the 20-year-old Osaka showed nerves of steel as she closed out the game emphatically. She began the game with a sizzling forehand down-the-line winner. After a sharp crosscourt winner by Serena, Naomi hit a big serve that Serena returned in the net. Osaka followed that point with an ace to grab the 40-15 lead: two match points. Serena pulled another winner from the baseline to save the first match point, but on the second one, Osaka struck another thunderous serve that Serena could not handle. Four points won, three on serves and one a baseline winner, five out of six first serves in. If that is not clutch, under those circumstances, I don’t know what is.
This is a great moment for women’s tennis, not only because a rising star has confirmed her status as a genuine force on the tour, but also because women’s tennis manifests a wonderful balance at the top portion of its rankings with eight different title holders in the last two years. Hopefully, when the chaos of the controversy begins to dissipate, tennis circles can look back at this final and cherish the arrival of a new name to the elite ranks of the WTA.