But it is beginning to look like Japanese politeness rather than awe, or a fan’s quivering the presence of an idol, which never dies even if they become peers. Osaka is honest about this.
“It’s always a surreal moment, just to see her in real life, like close up,” she said, “because I rarely see her, to be honest.”
It carried over into the match, briefly. “I was definitely really nervous,” she said. “It’s very intimidating to serve for the first game and see her on the other side of the net.” This, remember, though she had already beaten her in a major championship final.
Williams flourished initially, breaking Osaka in the opening game and jumping on her second serve like a two-year-old on a puddle. She held a point to lead 3-0.
Like so much else this day, it was deceiving. Once Osaka quelled her nerves and found her range, she won the next five games, and 12 of the 17 that formed the balance of the match.
One of Williams’ wins had nothing to do with her; it was on the back of three Osaka double faults. But she did not lose another point for the match.
Osaka beat Williams at her own patent game. She served faster, hit her groundstrokes harder and, yes, made fewer errors. Excluding double faults, she won half as many points again as Williams. In tennis, that’s a 15-goal smashing.
Williams was reduced to standing with her hands on her hips. The crowd was stunned. So were the commentators. Peculiarly, tennis people barrack for overdogs, wanting more for those who have everything. Williams may not have been the bookies’ favourite this day, but she is the sport’s perma-favourite. Her exploits have gained her that.
But for how much longer? Since she last won a major, she has lost four finals, and now her last two semi-finals. It hints at dignified regression, which ought not to surprise about a 39-year-old. Yes, these are strange times, but they are strange for everyone. It’s no alibi.
That’s not to say Williams won’t beat Osaka again somewhere. It’s not to say Williams can’t win that 24th title. But it is to say of Osaka what has long been said of Williams, that to win a major henceforth, you’re probably going to have to beat her.
Osaka has won all her three majors since Williams last won one, and stands a strong chance to add a fourth here. Other successors are milling around, including Ash Barty, but Osaka at 23 is the youngest, and shapes as the likeliest to turn her name into an era. She is the heiress apparent.
Even at skin-deep level, she resembles the young Williams in that she has more of everything than anyone else, starting with hair.
In fact, there was little to tell between them as they arrived on court on Thursday, both in the modern way lugging bags they might have been unloading from the family SUV for a day at the beach. But when they began to play, the generation gap emerged sharply.
Osaka is beginning to usurp Williams in other ways. When she won here in 2019 as a 21-year-old, she appeared diffident about her achievement and tongue-tied when talking about it. She is still quirky, but her substance is emerging, as a person and player. She takes positions other than a place to return serve: on racism, on sexism, for two.
Osaka spoke of her 100 per cent record in finals. “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. She spoke of her growing mental strength and maturity. “I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match,” she said. “That’s just [not] how I feel any more.”
And she spoke again of Williams. “I want her to play forever,” she said. “That’s the little kid in me.”
She also imagined that somewhere in the stands, there was a starry-eyed kid who was thinking she might play Osaka one day, and what an honour that would be.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.