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Osaka-Swiatek is a championship unto itself

Only one woman will lift a trophy on Saturday as Miami Open champion, but women’s tennis has already won a championship in South Florida.

At least, that’s how it feels for many fans of the sport.

After Ash Barty retired and took her excellence to the realm of youth coaching — a wonderful thing for her to do in this next chapter of her well-lived life — women’s tennis was not diminished, but it certainly needed a pick-me-up.

To be very clear, women’s tennis is very healthy. Endless parity and intrigue are part of big tournaments. Quality depth marks the tour. Matches are compelling and intense. There is so much to love. Yet, we can all note that having a signature rivalry to anchor the tour and bring a blockbuster feel to matches — the way Serena Williams did — gives tennis more mainstream exposure. It offers the potential to turn casual fans into diehards. This is the one thing a healthy WTA needs more of.

Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek meeting in the Miami final, right after Barty’s retirement, feels like a moment in which fate smiled on women’s tennis, as if to say, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Everything sure is right about this final. Only an injury can make it wrong.

This match might not be great. Maybe both players will be nervous. Maybe Swiatek will be mentally worn down after all the tennis — and winning — she has produced in recent weeks. None of that really matters in a larger sense. What matters to the two players is winning a Miami title.

What matters to us, the tennis community, is the simple fact that this match will happen.

It could be an Osaka onslaught. It could be a Swiatek sweep. It could be a tense, 3-set thrill ride. Those details are secondary. As long as an injury isn’t part of the proceedings, we are going to get two elite players — young and already blessed with massive achievements in the sport — in a championship match at a tournament of considerable value.

This is what men’s tennis has had for nearly 20 years.

Few would dispute the claim that over the past several years, women’s tennis has been better and more interesting than men’s tennis as a collective whole. Yet, the incomparable feats of the Big 3 have provided weighty, history-soaked moments which have dominated the global tennis conversation. Though on a 1-through-128 level, women’s major tournaments provide more quality than men’s majors do, the Big 3’s collection of epic battles and iconic victories has kept that particular flame burning. Passion, nostalgia, historic stakes, and other attached dimensions of Big 3 matches has enabled men’s tennis to enjoy a bright, warm glow even as the lower and middle tiers of its product have suffered compared to the Tsonga-Berdych-Ferrer-Delpo era when the top 10 and top 20 delivered better quality in the middle rounds of notable tournaments.

The Big 3 shows how great rivalries and great tennis at the very top can mask flaws in the lower rungs of a tour.

Women’s tennis isn’t unhealthy in its middle and lower tiers, but the point is that with great top-tier rivalries, the sense of importance and historical resonance surrounding a sport is able to grow and become more nourished.

The one thing a thriving sport has lacked in recent years will finally return in this Miami final. We haven’t had many of these “meetings on the mountaintop” in big finals since Serena’s 2019 season and her double-stack of Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

Naomi Osaka is already one of the great hardcourt players of her generation, with four major titles on that surface. Iga Swiatek is already a Roland Garros champion and a proven clay genius who is now one win from completing the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami.

Osaka is a former World No. 1 who, if able to replicate this form on hardcourts this summer in Canada, Ohio, and New York, will make a new push for World No. 1.

Swiatek will officially be World No. 1 on Monday, and is easily No. 1 in the WTA race to the year-end championships.

Osaka can play No. 1-level tennis at any time on hardcourts. Swiatek is playing No. 1-level tennis right now.

Saturday’s match is less important in connection to what might happen. It is more important for the simple reality that the meeting will happen.

Whoever wins or loses, whoever succeeds or struggles, we will receive an entry into the great book of tennis history. One player will gain confidence from securing victory. The other will remember what led to defeat and will try to make adjustments for next time.

Osaka and Swiatek, two players already owning coniderable riches and poised to forge great careers, can build a foundation from this match. Writing one chapter of a story invites the next one in the future. Had this match not become reality in Miami, there would be no epic story to build, no dramatic arc to create.

Now there will be. In that sense, a victory has already been won. It’s a championship for women’s tennis before the first ball is struck on Saturday.

Only time will tell if Saturday grows into something much bigger.

The fact of an Osaka-Swiatek final at least means we get to pursue that possibility and dream of what could emerge in the future.

It’s exciting, no?

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