Sensing Osaka's uncertainty, Serena swings with authority in Toronto

Sensing Osaka's uncertainty, Serena swings with authority in Toronto

As chaotic as the last match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was, that’s how commanding Serena’s performance was Friday night at the Rogers Cup.

“You gotta take a chance to dictate, or she’s gonna dictate.”

This was the advice that Naomi Osaka’s coach, Jermaine Jenkins, gave to her before the final game of her 6-3, 6-4 loss to Serena Williams in Toronto on Friday. It was hard to argue with him.

Up to that point, Osaka had played it safe and not taken chances. With the wind swirling around her, she had swung tentatively and placed the ball conservatively, right down the middle of the court. As Jenkins said, it had been Serena who had taken advantage of Osaka’s uncertainty, and taken command of the rallies.

Serena hadn’t necessarily been at her best to start; her forehand, in particular, was sailing on her. But she had moved well, covered the corners, and hit with the right mix of force (to blast the ball through the wind) and margin (to keep it from dancing too close to the lines). She had served well, and returned with purpose, sending Osaka scrambling toward the corners as soon as she could. “I can feel it in my bones,” Osaka said with a laugh near the end of the match, referring to “all the lunging” she was being forced to do.

Getty Images.

As chaotic as their last match, in the 2018 US Open final, had been, that’s how commanding Serena’s performance was today. She said she had been looking forward to facing Osaka again, after losing to her twice last year, and she played this match with the fierce calm of a woman on a mission. Serena hit 31 winners to Osaka’s five, 12 aces to Osaka’s zero, and didn’t face a break point. She didn’t make Osaka vanish, exactly, but she didn’t let her get a foot in the door, either.

“It was a better match for me,” Serena said afterward, with considerable understatement.

Osaka said she was hoping to get some reps in Toronto, and then peak for the US Open. If that’s still the plan, she has some work to do. In place of the calmly decisive player we saw at Flushing Meadows last year, this version of Osaka struggled for the better part of two sets to put a clean swing on the ball. When she finally fired a vintage forehand past Serena from the baseline, she followed it up by trying a drop shot and popping it high into the air. Like those shots hit straight down the middle, that was never going to get it done against Serena.

Did Osaka listen to Jenkins in the final game and "take a chance?" She, and we, never found out, because Serena never let her. She fired two aces to go up 40-0, and then, after squandering three match points, fired one more to end it. Osaka’s “tennis mom” had given her a valuable lesson: anything less than your best against Serena isn’t going to be good enough.