And despite not reaching another final since, the 21-year-old will arrive for the defence of that first Major back at No1—for she has continued to keep things ticking over nicely with quarter-finals at quality events such as Madrid, Rome, Toronto and Cincinnati. Osaka is a player who enjoys the big stage, and none is bigger than the mighty 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe at the heart of the US Open.
It has been a remarkable 18-month journey, and one full of lessons on and off court. The biggest, indeed, may have come in the aftermath of that final almost a year ago, which became one of the most reported and revisited finals when she beat an emotionally distraught Serena Williams with an exhibition of outstanding power tennis, 6-2, 6-4.
The Japanese star now has more than 200 wins under her belt and almost $12 million prize money in the bank, but while she is seeded No1 and the favourite to rise to the big challenge again in New York, there is the small issue of a knee injury she picked up in Cincinnati that may ring alarm bells.
2018 was an extraordinary year for Serena Williams too, as she made her return from the birth of her daughter and serious physical complications—unranked, even though she went on maternity leave as No1 after her 2017 Australian Open victory.
That return, coincidentally, was at Indian Wells, though her path did not cross that of new champion Osaka until Round 1 in Miami a week later, with victory for the woman who was almost half Williams’ age.
Through the year, Williams would play just seven tournaments, reach the final at Wimbledon and the US Open, before closing down her season. And this year she has thus far played only seven events, and failed to complete four of them due to injury. The last retirement was in the final of the Rogers Cup a fortnight ago, so she heads to the US Open without a title since that 2017 Australian Open victory—though at her highest ranking, No8, in over two years.
But along the way in Toronto, she did meet Osaka again, and this time scored a straight-forward win. And as luck would have it, they have been drawn in opposite halves for this year’s US Open. But even if both remain fit throughout the fortnight, there will be multiple questions and challenges from many, many women.
In the 10 Majors since Williams won No23, there have been eight different champions, with Osaka and Simona Halep winning two apiece. And there have been seven different No1s, with another five players claiming Premier Mandatory titles, plus one more name, Elina Svitolina, on the WTA Finals trophy.
Add into the mix that the first 18 tournaments of the year were won by 18 different players—until Petra Kvitova scored a second in Stuttgart—and that at least two of the US Open Series champions [see below] are different names again, and there are champions aplenty, both young and old, who could cause an upset even if they do not win the US title.
Osaka seems to have escaped serious danger until the fourth round, where Belinda Bencic sits: The Swiss has beaten Osaka in both meetings this year. The quarters may bring No9 Aryna Sabalenka—one of the early hard-court champions this year and with a fourth-round run at the US Open last year—but in her opener, she plays Victoria Azarenka, who is one of six unseeded former Major champions in the draw. The former No1 is also a two-time finalist at the US Open.
Other seeds in this quarter, Donna Vekic, Julia Goerges and Kiki Bertens, can all win big on their day, with Bertens in particular a proven talent on all surfaces, and one of those Premier Mandatory champions.
The bottom quarter of this half is led by Major champion and former No1 Simona Halep, who, after a qualifier opener, has a stacked section boasting six former Major champions, including Cincinnati runner-up and 2004 US champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. However, it is No6 seed Kvitova who could face any one of four Major champs in the fourth round, among them Sloane Stephens. Halep’s first big test could also come in the fourth round, with one of the form players of the summer, Bianca Andreescu, winner in Indian Wells and Toronto.
Serena Williams is in the bottom quarter, which is topped by the Miami and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty—though the two cannot meet before the quarters. And it is Williams who has the standout opener against old rival Maria Sharapova, though the Russian has struggled with injury and form, and has also not beaten Williams since 2004, an 18-match losing streak.
Barty could meet Angelique Kerber in the fourth round, but the former champion has not won a match since her second-round loss at Wimbledon.
The other quarter, topped by No3 seed and former US finalist Karolina Pliskova, should boost her standing as a possible winner in New York, with potential early seeds Johanna Konta and Caroline Garcia, both in search of a big run on hard-courts this season.
Pliskova should meet either Madison Keys or Svitolina in the quarters, but the latter is facing a particularly tough first week in the shape of Venus Williams or Monica Puig in the second round. But any one of Pliskova, Keys or Svitolina has the potential to challenge for their first Major title.
Hard court champions since Wimbledon
Saisai Zheng (San Jose Premier); runner-up Sabalenka
Jessica Pegula (Washington); runner-up Camila Giorgi
Andreescu (Toronto Premier 5); runner-up Serena Williams
Keys (Cincinnati Premier 5); runner-up Kuznetsova
Hard court Power Rankings, courtesy of WTA Insider
Derived from a weighted formula over the last four years
1 Pliskova; 2 Svitolina; 3 Osaka; 4 Caroline Wozniacki; 5 Halep; 6 Kerber; 7 Kvitova; 8 Barty; 9 Stephens; 10 Garbine Muguruza
Former champions in draw
Serena Williams (six), Venus Williams (two), Osaka (one, defending), Kuznetsova (one), Sharapova (one), Sam Stosur (one), Kerber (one), Stephens (one)
Round 1 highlights
Sabalenka vs Azarenka
Muguruza vs Alison Riske
Saisai Zheng vs Venus Williams
Sofia Kenin vs Coco Vandeweghe
Konta vs Karia Kasatkina
Serena Williams vs Sharapova
Kerber vs Kristina Mladenovic
The draw: comprises 128, including eight wild cards, 16 qualifiers; 32 seeds
R1 Anna Blinkova
R2 Astra Sharma or Magda Linette
R3 First seed No28 Carla Suarez Navarro [Coco Gauff also here]
R4 Seeds are No21 Anett Kontaveit and No13 Bencic
QF Seeds are No9 Sabalenka, No23 Vekic, No26 Goerges, No7 Bertens [Azarenka also here]
SF Top seeds are No4 Halep and No6 Kvitova
R2 Qualifier or Kateryna Kozlova
R3 First seed No31 Barbora Strycova
R4 Seeds are No19 Wozniacki and No15 Andreescu
QF Seeds are No11 Stephens, No24 Muguruza, No25 Elise Mertens, No6 Kvitova; also here, Kuznetsova, Jelena Ostapenko
SF Top seeds are No1 Osaka and No7 Bertens
R2 Bernarda Pera or Qualifier
R3 First seed No27 Garcia
R4 Seeds are No16 Konta and No17 Marketa Vondrousova
QF Seeds are No5 Svitolina, No32 Dayana Yastremska, No20 Sofia Kenin, No20 Keys; also here Saisai Zheng, Venus Williams
SF Top seeds are No8 Serena Williams and No2 Barty
R1 Zarina Diyas
R2 Lauren Davis or Qualifier
R3 First seed No30 Maria Sakkari
R4 Seeds are No14 Kerber and No18 Qiang Wang
QF Seeds are No8 Serena Williams, No29 Su-Wei Hsieh, No22 Petra Martic, No12 Anastasija Sevastova; also here Sharapova, Eugenie Bouchard
SF Top seeds are No5 Svitolina and No3 Pliskova
NB Due to personal circumstances, Marianne has been unable to travel to the US Open this year. Regrettably, coverage of the tournament will also be limited.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge