NEW YORK (AP) — For Serena Williams, there was no “wait until next year” during the last U.S. Open.
In the past, whenever a Grand Slam tournament ended without Williams holding the trophy, there was always the belief she could simply win the next one. She was the best player in the game, maybe the best ever, and she was going to be a favorite as soon as she showed up again.
But she wasn’t thinking about tennis at this time last year.
She was thinking about survival.
That’s what makes this such a memorable run to another U.S. Open final, where she will play first-time finalist Naomi Osaka of Japan on Saturday with a chance to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.
Williams lost in the Wimbledon final, but has given herself another chance even faster than perhaps she could have imagined last September. She had four operations following the birth of her daughter, Olympia, during the Open because of complications related to blood clots.
“To come from that,” Williams said, “in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row.”
She has won six of her 23 major titles in New York, and with a victory would equal Margaret Court’s record. On the other side, the 20-year-old Osaka could be the first Grand Slam singles champion from Japan and the youngest women’s champion at the U.S. Open since Maria Sharapova was 19 in 2006.
Osaka wasn’t even a year old when Williams played in her first U.S. Open in 1998. She dreamed when she was younger of playing Williams in a Grand Slam final, earning her chance with a Williams-esque waltz through the draw in which she’s dropped just 28 games over six matches.
“At the same time, I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match,” Osaka said. “Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
They played in March in Miami, when Williams was early in her return to tour and Osaka had just won Indian Wells, a significant victory for what remains her lone professional title. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2. But both players know there’s not much to take from the match given the timing.
“I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation,” Williams said. “It was what it was. I mean, hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
She has, and she’ll be only one spot out of the top 10 in the rankings if she wins after barely reaching the top 500 in March.
But Williams is much more interested in major titles than rankings. She hasn’t won one at the U.S. Open since 2014 or anywhere since the 2017 Australian Open, when while pregnant she became the oldest Grand Slam female champion at 35.
She will turn 37 on Sept. 26, unsure when she’ll fully get back to the player she was before her health scares.
But even if it’s not Saturday, she believes it will happen.
“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future,” Williams said.
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