By Mary Papenfuss
It was an astonishing, hard-fought — and painfully bittersweet — struggle for rising tennis star Naomi Osaka to nail a long-dreamed-of victory against her idol, Serena Williams, on Saturday. After Williams’ emotional blow-up over controversial penalties in the match, the women stood side-by-side and helped each other through the fallout of the match.
The 20-year-old ace trounced Williams 6-2, 6-4 in her upset victory in the U.S. Open. She became the first Japanese Grand Slam champion.
But Osaka’s accomplishment was marred by controversial penalties against Williams, 37, who became increasingly upset with umpire Carlos Ramos, saying again and again: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” She complained that women are held to a higher standard of comportment on the court than men. Osaka later expressed regret for what happened.
As the trophy ceremony began and the crowd booed, Williams moved to the sobbing Osaka and put an arm around her shoulder, eventually drawing a smile from her young rival.
“She played well and this is her first Grand Slam,” Williams told the crowd. “Let’s make this the best moment we can, we’ll get through it. Let’s give everyone credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re going to get through this. Let’s stay positive. Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing!”
Osaka told the audience: “I know that everyone was cheering for
her and I’m sorry it had to end like this. It was always my dream to play Serena in the U.S. Open finals so I’m really glad I was able to do that.”
A tearful Osaka, who has idolized Williams for years, said later at a post-match press conference: “When I step on the court, I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
As for Williams’ conflicts with Ramos, Osaka said: “I didn’t know what was going on, I was just trying to focus. Since it was my first Grand Slam final, I didn’t want to get overwhelmed.”
It was Osaka’s first time in a Grand Slam final. She was born in Japan to a Japanese mom and Haitian dad. She was raised in the United States, and plays for Japan.
The ugly drama of her dreamed-of match began when Ramos accused Williams of receiving coaching signs from her coach, who was in the stands. Williams denied receiving coaching. Ramos then issued a point penalty against her when Williams later broke her racket in frustration during play. When Williams blasted him as a “thief” because he “stole a point” from her, Ramos penalized her an entire game in the second set, boosting Osaka’s lead from 4-3 to 5-3.
Osaka battled for the win with big, powerful strokes, like a younger version of Williams herself, some sports observers noted. She also played with a steely resolve before an audience clearly rooting for Williams. The New Yorker said earlier this week that she looks like the “next best tennis player in the world.”
She won $3.8 million in prize money for the event, and the victory will no doubt attract several new lucrative endorsement deals.
“Osaka has incredible long-term potential because of her age, multicultural appeal and on-the-court talent,” an industry expert in celebrity branding told Forbes. “Her sense of humor is endearing.”
Williams praised her playing. “She was so focused … whenever I had a break point, she came up with some great serve,” said Williams.
Despite the turmoil Williams and Osaka hugged full on at the end of the match, and Williams smiled warmly at Osaka. Williams had been hoping to win her 24th Grand Slam title to tie the record set 45 years ago to the day by Margaret Court at the U.S. Open.
The WTA said in a statement that there are “matters that need to be looked into that took place during the match,” adding: “For tonight, it is time to celebrate these two amazing players, both of whom have great integrity.”
USTA president Katrina Adams hailed Williams’ defense of Osaka on the podium as a “class move from a true champion.”
Despite Williams’s support for Osaka, she remained angry about the decisions by Ramos, calling it “sexist.” It “blows my mind,” she said.