Ekaterina Alexanderova tried to get in the way, tried to be the proverbial fly in the ointment.
So did Iga Swiatek.
But in the end, the titanic match that many have been waiting almost a year to see just wouldn’t be put off any longer.
So on Friday evening at the 2019 Rogers Cup the tennis world will finally get to see Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams duel on court for the first time since their infamous and highly contentious U.S. Open final last year, won by Osaka.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of people will be watching the match,” smiled Osaka after defeating the 18-year-old Swiatek in a surprisingly tight match late Thursday evening.
Much has happened since then that controversial match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Osaka added an Australian Open title to her resume, became No. 1 in the world and her popularity and commercial appeal have exploded. She is now the second highest paid female athlete on the planet behind only Williams, according to Forbes Magazine, and it’s still just the beginning for the 21-year-old. Most believe she will be a central figure for the host nation next year when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.
She had her hands full with Poland’s Swiatek, whose combination of athleticism and ingenuity had even Osaka smiling in the middle of points.
“I’ve never been so satisfied after a loss!” tweeted Swiatek after her compelling performance.
Williams, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to win a tournament since that 6-2, 6-4 upset loss to Osaka in New York, and in her most recent attempt to capture a 24th Grand Slam singles title, she was dismissed rather easily in the Wimbledon final by Simona Halep.
Against Alexanderova on Thursday, she won in straight sets, but had to come-from-behind in both. Alexanderova hit a lot of winners making Williams’ movement seem suspect, but the American was able to turn up her level at the key moments.
Asked to evaluate her performance, Williams said “under the circumstances. . . I’m still in the tournament.”
Williams, in two career matches, has never beaten Osaka.
“I’ve been actually looking forward to playing her for a while,” said Williams. “She had a great year early in the season, and she’s still doing pretty good, actually. So it would be really good to play her again.”
It was last September when the two women met in the U.S. Open final and Williams became embroiled in a heated dispute with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, accusing Ramos of being a “thief” for making several rulings against her. Her actions caused great dispute both inside the tennis industry and outside it, with people who had almost never watched the sport putting forth opinions on what saw as a gender issue, other saw as a race issue, and still others (including Williams) promoted as a debate on the rights of mothers.
Osaka, however, outplayed Williams decisively that night, and even Williams finally acknowledged in an apology letter that she was “truly sorry” her abusive outbursts directed towards Ramos detracted from Osaka’s first Grand Slam win.
“I would never want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete,” Williams wrote in the letter to Osaka.
There’s clearly no bad feelings between the two.
“She’s kind of like my tennis mom,” said the Japanese star. “She’s someone that I grew up watching. I admire her so much.”
Osaka has had her struggles this year, and said she was happy just to be in a quarter final, let alone one against Williams.
“Whenever I get the opportunity to play her, it’s something that I feel is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It feels more like I’m showcasing my skills to her. Look what I can do. You know what I mean? So I go into the matches with that mentality and I’m just super grateful to get the chance to play her.”
Given that this tournament is taking place in the Greater Toronto Area, the Williams-Osaka collision will be the second most watched match of the day behind the afternoon quarterfinal between Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont. and Karolina Plishkova. Osaka won the No. 1 ranking from Ash Barty this week, but Plishkova could displace her as the top player on the WTA tour if she can win the Rogers Cup.
Almost forgotten is Halep, the defending champion, who dispatched Svetlana Kuznetsova on Thursday afternoon and will play a fellow Romanian, upstart qualifier Marie Bouzkova in a Friday quarterfinal match. Since Andreescu also has Romanian roots and has been embraced by Nadia Comaneci, among others, it’s been a big week for that country.
There’s still the possibility that Halep and Andreescu could meet in the final. Or Bouzkova and Andreescu, for that matter.
“I really look up to Simona,” said Andreescu. “She’s an incredible athlete, player and person. Playing her would mean a lot. It would be huge in Romania, for sure.”
Sonia Kenin and Elina Svitolina round out Friday’s quarterfinal matchups.