It may be that Naomi Osaka’s 6-2, 6-4 win over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open would be remembered more for what she didn’t do, than what she did. The story behind her win may be that of the penalties her opponent received. The narrative may be that of how tennis’ reigning Queen was denied her 24th Major title, robbing New York of its eternal dream yet again.
But if that were to be so, we are nothing but poor chroniclers of history that was made in front of us: 20-year-odl Osaka became the first player ever from Japan to lift a Grand Slam title, in a match where she bested her childhood idol in every department.
When they met at Arthur Ashe stadium, only for the second time ever, Osaka did not fawn over Serena and believed that, “It was just another match with just another tennis player.”
She was not the one for a gentle game of back-and-forth. She used brutal baseline hitting with sharp angles and tremendous movement to take an early 4-1 lead in the first set. Both her serves and ground-strokes were more powerful than Serena’s. She won the first set in just under 33 minutes, with a 117 mph winner.
For Serena, her serve — the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and effortlessly smooth shot in tennis — was failing her. She was on the backfoot throughout the set, unable to reach Osaka’s penetrating ground-strokes and unable to produce some of her own.
What followed early in the next set was an extraordinary series of events which would spawn several hundred takes, columns and editorials; just effectively shadowing Osaka’s win over and over again.
In the second game, with Osaka serving at 0-1, 40-15, chair umpire Carlos Ramos handed Serena a warning for a coaching violation when he witnessed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, giving signals to her from the player's box. Serena denied the allegation, but her coach admitted to it later.
It seemed the argument was just what she needed — Serena finally broke Osaka to take a 3-1 lead. It all started to go downhill, however, when Osaka broke back again in the fifth game and Serena mangled her racquet in frustration.
She was awarded a second code violation, which translates to a point penalty.
Amidst all this, Osaka remained calm and showed exceptional poise under pressure.
After equalising, her celebrations were further mellowed and she did nothing but give two taps on her leg and the most muted fist pump to motivate herself.
The scores were 4-3 when Serena — who continued her verbal altercation with the umpire during which she called him a ‘thief’— was given a game penalty. A deafening cascade of boos shook the roof on the Ashe stadium. Throughout the entire ordeal that stole her well-earned spotlight, Osaka was either sitting with a towel over her head or standing next to the line umpires, her shoulders slumped, her back to the court. Serena, holding back tears, still managed to hold serve 4-5. In a true test of nerves, Osaka closed the set and the match to seal her victory.
Tears and boos
In the awkward trophy ceremony that followed, she pulled her visor down over her eyes and shed silent tears, even as the crowd continued booing. It was a scene that would be remembered for many years to come: it was the champion who was being consoled.
Osaka has been known for her shy, earnest and endearing off-court personality. “I’m not really social…”, “I’m only 20!”, “I think I’d probably play a video game…” she mused at the post-match press conference, every sentence punctuated by giggles.
But after Saturday, she would be praised for a self-assured, gracious and tenacious on-court disposition, more so in the face of a storm raging around her.