One has been in considerably more grand slam finals than the other has had birthdays. One is still learning to juggle family and professional commitments as a working mum while the other is still finding her feet at the top of the sport.
Yet, as Serena Williams squares up to Naomi Osaka today in the final of the US Open, she and her young rival are united by one common bond: for both of them, this is the start of something big.
Williams flattened Anastasija Sevastova on Thursday night, wobbling briefly at the start to go 2-0 down and then dropping only one more game to win 6-3, 6-0. She was fierce, she was aggressive (24 of 28 points won at the net) and she was every inch the champion on a mission. A couple of weeks shy of her 37th birthday and playing only her seventh tournament since returning from maternity leave, she looked like the Serena of old.
But this is not the old Serena. Motherhood has changed her in every respect (other than in her will to win) and even the process of giving birth has given her a new perspective. Serious complications after the arrival of Olympia last September almost cost Williams her life and now the pressures of chasing trophies and records seem to have gone forever. She still chases them, but failure to reach those goals is now bearable. That makes her all the more terrifying an opponent.
“Last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital,” she said. “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. This is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still. That is super exciting for me.”
Marching towards her 31st grand slam final (she was in the Wimbledon final only two months ago), Williams is homing in on Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles.
Three years ago, as the champion of Australia, France and Wimbledon and chasing the Grand Slam in New York, she was suffocated by the pressure and simply refused to talk about numbers, titles or history. She could not face them. It finally overcame her as she lost in the semi-finals to Roberta Vinci. Today, as she stands two sets away from matching Court, Williams is positively relaxed. “I’m just going to keep trying,” she said. “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll keep trying for the next one.”
There will be next ones, too. Age is irrelevant to Williams and, as she returns to full fitness after having young Olympia, she sees new horizons, new goals and plenty of winning ahead of her.
“This is just the beginning of my return,” she said. “I’m still on the way up. There’s still much more that I plan on doing. You don’t reach your best a couple months in. That’s kind of where I am now. I just feel like there’s a lot of growth to still go in my game. That’s actually the most exciting part.”
Trying to stunt that growth is 20-year-old Osaka, the world No 19 who only announced her arrival at the top end of the game this year by winning the Indian Wells title. She did beat Williams the following week, in the first round in Miami, but she is not taking much heed of that result as it was only the third match of Williams’ comeback. On Thursday, she reached her first grand slam final by beating Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4.
Like Williams, Osaka was coached, as a child, by her father and grew up trying desperately to beat her older sister, Mari, (she finally managed it aged 15). Her father, Leonard, is Haitian, her mother, Tamaki, is Japanese. She was born in Osaka, grew up in Long Island and now lives in Florida with dual American-Japanese citizenship but plays under the Japanese flag. And she grew up idolising Williams.
“It feels a little bit, like, surreal,” she said. “Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a grand slam.”
With walloping ground strokes and a love of the big occasion, Osaka has the beating of anyone on her day. Whether today is that day remains to be seen but with her carefree power, she will have many more chances to make her mark at a major championship. As for that childhood dream, how did it turn out? “I don’t dream to lose, so...” she said. “That’s how I’m answering your question.