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What a difference a year makes for Serena Williams at this year's U.S. Open

Serena Williams looks to return to Anastasija Sevastova

Serena Williams looks to return to Anastasija Sevastova during the semifinal round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Last year at this time, Serena Williams was fighting the complications from the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia. After she defeated Anastasija Sevastova in the semifinals Thursday, the emotions of her far greater battle came out.

“I got a little emotional out there because last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital. I was on my third surgery,” Williams said, recalling her struggle with a pulmonary embolism. “I had one more to go still.”

Having survived her life-threatening situation, having wondered if she still could have a tennis career, Williams has one more match to go to win her seventh U.S. Open title. That would be Saturday against Naomi Osaka.

“To come from that, 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,” said Williams, 36. “Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still.”

Osaka, 20, is at the beginning of her climb, and there are expectations that it can be a long ascent. She beat Williams in Miami in March, when Williams was returning from her maternity leave, and that was a week after Osaka won at Indian Wells.

“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now,” Williams said. “I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation.”

For Osaka, it seems totally different now. After she lost in Cincinnati three weeks ago, her third straight defeat, she had her emotional moment in the locker room.

“I was just crying because I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really bad at tennis,’  ” said Osaka, who is the first Japanese woman to make a Grand Slam final. “Then I came here and I was just thinking, I’m going to have fun and fight for every point that I can. I’m still here, so in a way I’m glad that I lost those three matches because I think my mentality would have been different coming into this tournament.”

Beating her idol in Miami was one thing. Getting to face her in the Open final is the ultimate dream.

“Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam,” said Osaka, whose dream of tennis glory began when she was a grade-schooler in Elmont. “Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it. At the same time, I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”

Sascha Bajin is Osaka’s coach and a former longtime hitting partner of Williams. Though Osaka’s power approaches that of Williams, he sees differences.

“I think they really are different people, because the only similarity they have is that they kind of have the same hair, big hair,” Bajin said. “I believe that they kind of want to play the same. They are very powerful, big servers, big hitters, both of them. But even on court, Serena is very aggressive and Naomi, I have to push her to get a fist pump out of her. So the mindset is different from one to the other.”

Both, no doubt, are dreaming.

“Even though I’m not a spring chicken,” Williams said, “I still have a very, very bright future”

Said Osaka, “I don’t dream to lose.”

New York Sports