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U.S. Open final is not just ‘another match’ for Naomi Osaka, but she’s still all business

Naomi Osaka overcame the memory of a disappointing loss to Madison Keys at the U.S. Open to reach Saturday’s final. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — When Pam Shriver played three-time defending champion Chris Evert in the 1978 U.S. Open final, the 16-year-old from Baltimore was the ultimate underdog.

Evert was a big name on her way to becoming a legend, already halfway through her record-tying six championships at the year’s final Grand Slam. Shriver had just a sliver of that experience on the biggest stages — she had upset Martina Navratilova in the semifinals, but she had never faced Evert in singles. She hadn’t even turned pro yet, and she was taking the subway to Flushing Meadows every morning.

Shriver, who went on to win 21 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles and now works as an analyst for ESPN, lost that final, 7-5, 6-4, because of inexperience and intimidation as much as on-court talent. She knows what it’s like to feel the pressure of playing a champion in a big moment.

In the U.S. Open women’s singles final Saturday, Serena Williams will have that intimidation factor and the experience of 31 Grand Slam singles finals appearances, in addition to her myriad on-court weapons, when she faces Japan’s Naomi Osaka. But Shriver said she believes the 20-year-old Osaka, in the first Grand Slam final of her career, has what it takes to compete.

“I was 16. I was still playing 16-and-under nationals the month before, losing to Tracy Austin . . . and then I went to the U.S. Open and lost in the finals,” Shriver said Friday. “Whereas Osaka — Osaka’s been in the big time. Even though she’s young, she’s become in the last two years a very mature young pro that I see growing in leaps and bounds.”

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This U.S. Open marks the first time Osaka, the No. 20 seed, has made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Although this is her major tournament breakthrough, she’s far from a novice.

Osaka’s first WTA Tour title came in March at a tournament many consider tennis’s fifth major: Indian Wells, where she defeated former No. 1 players Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova, as well as current No. 1 Simona Halep, who held the top spot then as well, en route to the championship.

She then put her admiration for Williams aside to beat the 23-time Grand Slam champion, 6-3, 6-2, in Miami. It was Williams’s second event back after her return from maternity leave, and she wasn’t playing at anywhere near her current level, but the mental boost was significant for Osaka.

She and her older sister, Mari, got into tennis because their father saw the Williams sisters playing in the 1999 French Open and decided to teach his children. Osaka grew up idolizing Williams. Yet on the court, Osaka was cold and determined — just as she was in her first night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Thursday’s semifinals. Osaka saved all 13 break points against American Madison Keys, last year’s runner-up, and converted three of her four break opportunities.

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“Surprisingly, I felt sort of similar to how I feel now,” Osaka said Thursday, reflecting on her match against Williams in Miami. “I was very hyped for it, but when I stepped onto the court, I just thought it was another match.”

Osaka’s mental strength came through in the semifinal. The previous time she had played Keys in this tournament, in 2016, she lost in a third-set tiebreaker after leading 5-1 in that set.

“Feeling the intimidation of an all-time great or a great champion, you have to try to block it out,” Shriver said. “Kind of like the way she blocked out the Madison Keys disaster. These are all exercises in how to stay in the moment. The ultimate thing is staying in the moment in a major final, but the next ultimate thing is staying in the moment in a major semifinal. I thought Osaka was brilliant [Thursday] night, fighting off break points against a more experienced opponent.”

Osaka put intense pressure on herself to have a productive summer after winning the title at Indian Wells, only to lose in the second round in Miami, in the first round in Madrid and in the third round at the French Open and Wimbledon. Then she lost three matches in a row heading into the U.S. Open, a slump that led her to break down in tears in the locker room at the warmup tournament in suburban Cincinnati.

“I was just crying because I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really bad at tennis,’ ” Osaka said. “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. I think my mentality would have been different coming into this tournament.”

Her mind-set now is to keep things businesslike on court. She said Thursday that she knows what Williams is capable of — the new mom is going for her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title — and was trying to focus on her own game in advance. Her coach, Sascha Bajin, who was Williams’s hitting partner for years, will help her stay streamlined.

Shriver approves of that strategy.

“I think there’s some uncomplicated aspects to her play where she doesn’t overthink things. She knows where her strengths are,” Shriver said. “At the end of a tournament like this, you’ve got to keep things as simple as possible. And I think she has the right mind-set.”