- Serena Williams’s dustup with the U.S. Open Final chair umpire shouldn’t overshadow this crucial fact: Noami Osaka outplayed her and deserved to win Saturday’s match.
A few minutes after Naomi Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi posed what usually would have been a softball question: “How does the reality differ from your dreams?”
Growing up, Osaka dreamed of playing her idol Serena Williams—beating her, of course—in a Grand Slam final, and on Saturday she upset Williams 6-2, 6-4 to win the U.S. Open, her first career major title. What the 20-year-old surely didn’t envision was the crowd booing during the trophy presentation after the match was marred by an escalating series of controversial umpiring decisions.
Osaka, the No. 20 seed, seemed torn—regretful, even—about her victory. As tears streamed down her face during the trophy presentation, Osaka apologized to the fans for winning. “I know that everyone was cheering for [Serena],” Osaka said. “And I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
The match took a turn for the bizarre in the second set, after Osaka won the first convincingly. Williams was given a warning in the second game of the second set after chair umpire Carlos Ramos ruled she had received on-court coaching. (Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’s coach, admitted he was coaching, but said his actions were no different than “100% of the coaches on 100% of the matches.” Williams said she didn’t see anyone in her box coaching.) Ramos later gave her a point penalty after she smashed her racket. And with Osaka set to serve leading 4-3 in the second set, the umpire assessed her a game penalty after Williams continued calling him a “thief,” automatically awarding the eighth game of the set to Osaka.
But Williams’s dustup with the chair umpire shouldn’t obscure this crucial fact: Osaka outplayed her and deserved to win Saturday’s match.
Osaka, one of the most promising young talents in tennis, has been on the rise for several years, but 2018 has been a watershed season. She won her first professional tournament in March at Indian Wells and reached a career-best No. 17 ranking in July. (She’ll jump to No. 7 on Monday.) Now, at the age of 20, she’s a Grand Slam champion.
“She played an amazing match,” Williams said. “She deserved to win.”
There have been other debutant winners this season—Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open and Simona Halep at Roland Garros—but those victories felt more like culminations. Osaka, meanwhile, became the youngest U.S. Open women’s finalist since Wozniacki in ’09 and the youngest winner since Maria Sharapova in ’06. For Osaka, this is just a beginning.
While Williams, playing in her 31st major final, appeared unnerved at times and ultimately lost her cool, Osaka—a first-time major finalist—kept her composure and played fearless tennis. Osaka, the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam, was unflappable from the start, largely avoiding mistakes—she hit just 14 unforced errors—and taking advantage of Williams’s missteps. Osaka converted four of five break point opportunities and saved five of six she faced. Even as the second set descended into mayhem, she remained calm.
“I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” Osaka said.
The lone break of Osaka’s serve came early in the second set, giving Williams a 3-1 lead. But as quickly as Osaka appeared to lose control of the set, she gained it back—and Williams unraveled. On the first point of the set’s fifth game, Osaka smacked a forehand winner down the line off Williams’s first serve. Williams won the next two points, but then double faulted twice consecutively. On break point, after a short exchange of groundstrokes, Williams hit a backhand into the net. In frustration, she smashed her racket, drawing a code violation for racket abuse—a point penalty after the earlier warning for coaching.
Osaka held serve to level the score at 3-3, and then broke Williams the following game, coolly slapping a forehand winner past Williams at 30-40 to clinch the break. After Williams sat down in her chair, she continued to berate the chair umpire, blasting him for the earlier coaching violation. And that’s when she called him a “thief,” prompting a code violation for verbal abuse.
After a protracted argument with officials, Williams accepted her penalty—begrudgingly, to be sure—while the crowd booed loudly. Williams then held serve, giving Osaka the chance to close out the match at 5-4. And once again, Osaka showed the imperturbability that characterizes her on-court demeanor: After Williams ramped up the pressure by saving one match point, Osaka ripped a 114-mph serve winner to clinch her first major.
Osaka smiled and pulled her visor over her eyes. There was no dramatic fall to the ground or raise of the arms. It was a muted celebration befitting a player who stood out these last two weeks for her levelheadedness. “To have a huge reaction isn’t really me in the first place,” Osaka said. “It just still didn’t really feel that real.”
But when Williams congratulated her, the gravity of her victory started to set in.
“When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan—I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player,” Osaka said. “When I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
The chair umpire’s management of the match, and whether Williams deserved to be assessed a game penalty for calling him a “thief,” have so far overshadowed Saturday’s result. But Williams’s complaints, however fair or unfair, shouldn’t take away from one of the most impressive Grand Slam runs in recent memory. Osaka dropped just 34 games and one set the entire tournament, and she won what was essentially a road match on Saturday. That she managed to close out the final despite the spectacle of Williams’s dispute with the chair umpire makes her victory even more impressive. We’ll remember Saturday as the moment she became a genuine star.
To her credit, Williams tried to put the spotlight back on Osaka after the match. “Let’s make this the best moment we can,” Williams implored the crowd during the trophy ceremony. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore.” The crowd roared—though it wasn’t clear for whom they were cheering.
A few minutes later, as Williams stood to the side, Osaka lifted the trophy, softly smiling. It was her moment, even if it didn’t feel that way.