Japanese star Naomi Osaka paid tribute to Serena Williams on Saturday, hailing the 23-time Grand Slam champion as the “biggest force” in tennis as she prepares to bid farewell to the sport at the US Open.
Osaka, who denied Williams a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam in the stormy 2018 final in New York, said she had been left in tears by the thought of the American’s retirement.
The 24-year-old four-time Grand Slam winner, who is of mixed heritage with a Japanese mother and American-Haitian father, added that Williams had blazed a trail for minority players.
“I think that her legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” Osaka said.
“She changed the sport so much. She has introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she has done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m, like, very thankful to her.
“I honestly think that she’s the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to make (Roger) Federer or (Rafael) Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport.
“It’s just really an honor just to watch her play. She’s giving us a chance to watch her more.”
Osaka said she had suspected Williams was planning her retirement even before she announced her plans in an essay in Vogue magazine earlier this month.
Watching Williams play in Toronto — prior to the announcement — left Osaka in tears.
“It was really weird. I watched her first match in Toronto before she announced it. For some reason I just started crying because I felt it,” she said.
“I kind of felt like she was gearing up for her last US 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.'”
Osaka said Williams had inspired a new generation of black players into tennis.
“For me, like this is the most obvious part. But if you look at everyone that’s our skin color, clearly we followed her,” she said.