Japanese professional tennis player Naomi Osaka paid tribute to her idol, Serena Williams, ahead of the legendary athlete’s final U.S. Open before she retires.
Osaka, 24, spoke about Williams, 40, at a press conference for the U.S. Open on Saturday, proclaiming that her idol has “changed the sport [tennis] so much.”
“She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport, and I think I’m a product of what she’s done,” Osaka told reporters. “I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, you know, her whole family, and I’m very thankful to her.”
The four-time Grand Slam singles champion then went on to describe Williams as the “biggest force in the sport.”
“That’s not intentionally trying to make [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal smaller,” Osaka continued. “I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport, and it’s just really an honor just to watch her play.”
Williams hinted in a Vogue essay on Aug. 9 that the upcoming U.S. Open will be her final tournament before hanging up her racket.
“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me,” Williams wrote.
“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution,” she continued. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family.”
Osaka and Williams have faced each other four times on the court. The Japanese star won three of their matches, with one of those victories being her first Grand Slam final win
back in September 2018.
A day before the Vogue essay was published, Osaka said she started crying while watching Williams’ match against Spanish player Nuria Parrizas-Diaz at the Canadian Open in Toronto.
“For some reason, I just started crying because I felt it. I felt when I played her in Australia, people were like, ‘That’s the last time she’s going to be in Australia.’ I was like, ‘Dang, I really don’t want this to be true,’” Osaka said. “I kind of felt like she was gearing up for her last U.S. swing. I just started crying. Then she announced it the day later. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this is what devastation must feel like.’ Yeah, it really is an honor just to keep watching her play.”
Following the announcement, Osaka considered Williams’ use of the word “evolution” to be “really cool.”
“I feel like the term ‘retirement’ kind of means an end to something. But since she says ‘evolution,’ it means a continuing journey,” Osaka shared.
Although the two professional tennis players have met several times on the court, Osaka admitted that she cannot help but feel “nervous” and “stressed out” whenever she speaks to her idol.
“I just get really nervous around her,” Osaka said. “It’s really weird to idolize someone, then boom, you’re just talking to them. I don’t know. I feel stressed out. But she’s really sweet. She’s given me pointers sometimes.”
While Osaka admitted that it is difficult to put Williams’ legacy into words, the Japanese athlete praised her idol for breaking down barriers and being an icon for women of color.
“If you look at everyone that’s our skin color, clearly we followed her. I also think business-wise, she’s very into tech, so whoever follows that or tries to follow that, I think it will clearly be under her influence,” Osaka said.
“There’s definitely been a lot of barriers that I’m sure she had to fight to break down. We can now easily go through that because of her. … I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of things that she’s done that I don’t know about. But it will be interesting to see,” Osaka continued.
Williams is set to face Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic in her final U.S. Open tournament on Monday, while Osaka will play against American athlete Danielle Collins on Tuesday.