Naomi Osaka knew what she was about to say was both unusual and revealing, but the rising 20-year-old star is generally not one to hide her feelings.
“This is going to be really bad,” she warned.
Then Osaka, coming off her first WTA tour win, at Wells, Calif., on Sunday, proceeded to explain that she had relied on a four-word mantra throughout her young career to help guide her though big moments on the court. It goes through her head, and often comes out on the strings of her racket.
“Sometimes when I’m in a really important position, when I’m serving, I’m like, ‘What would Serena do?’” she said.
It is, of course, a reference to her idol Serena Williams, and for the first time ever Osaka unleashed W.W.S.D. against the champion herself. Not that Osaka had much need for it in a match that was low on tense moments.
But she said she turned to the mantra twice, when she uncorked two consecutive aces to hold a game in the second set, and went on to pound Williams, 6-3, 6-2, in an unusual first-round matchup at the Miami Open on Wednesday.
“She’s the main reason why I started playing tennis,” Osaka said, “and I have seen her on TV so many times and I have always been cheering for her.”
Instead of rooting for her on Wednesday, Osaka defeated Williams after overcoming a brief bout of nerves (they lasted exactly three games, she said), and ran an understandably sluggish Williams around the court.
Williams, who gave birth to a girl in September, is still working her way back into tennis form and flecking away the rust. She looked overwhelmed at times by Osaka, and particularly helpless against those W. W. S. D. serves, both out wide and down the middle.
Osaka scored six of her seven aces in the second set and saved the only two break points Williams could muster in the match. Williams had several egregious unforced errors, capped by her driving an easy forehand approach shot well long.
After the loss, Williams skipped a mandatory post-match news conference. It is uncommon for players, including Williams, to skip such duties after a match, even after a lopsided loss, and Williams could face a fine for her absence.
But Osaka was more than happy to discuss a win that had so much meaning for her.
She said her goal was merely to impress Williams, which she most likely did, and said she would have been happy to force Williams to yell out, “Come on,” at least once, an indication that Williams was engaged in a tense competition with a worthy opponent.
“Sometimes she plays matches where she doesn’t say, ‘Come on,’ at all, and that’s a little bit sad, because you think, ‘Do you think she’s trying?’” Osaka said.
The issue of whether a player should have a protected seeding after giving birth or during pregnancy has gained more attention recently, even more so after the pairings for this tournament came out. Victoria Azarenka, who gave birth to a son in 2016, defeated Catherine Bellis, 6-3, 6-0, on Wednesday and said she understands both sides of the issue.
The WTA has said it is examining the rules and could amend them to protect the seeding of pregnant players for as long as two years, including the time before they give birth and after. Azarenka is a member of the players council, and said it had been discussed.
“I don’t really have an answer for you right now, but those are two perspectives that I have to look at, and I have to be objective,” she said, and added: “We all need to be objective and look from every part of the view, because I do understand what people are saying that Serena needs to be seeded. I would like to be seeded, as well, but I need to be objective on that question for everybody.”