New York - Anger, boos, tears and an accusation of sexism overshadowed a remarkable victory by Naomi Osaka, a rising star who became the first tennis player born in Japan to win a Grand Slam championship.
Osaka soundly defeated her childhood idol, Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, in the women’s final of the U.S. Open on Saturday, blocking Williams from winning a record-tying 24th major singles title.
But the match will long be remembered for a series of confrontations between Williams and Carlos Ramos, the match’s chair umpire, who issued three penalties against Williams in the second set, after Osaka had established her dominance.
The first was a warning after Ramos felt Williams was receiving instructions from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, from the stands, which is against the rules. Williams was offended by the implication that she was cheating, and she demanded an apology. Later, after losing a game, she smashed her racket on the court, incurring a second penalty and the loss of a point.
Finally, after she called Ramos a “thief” for taking the point from her, Ramos cited Williams a third time, resulting in the loss of a game. Williams’ anger intensified, and she pleaded for help from the tournament referee, Brian Earley, and the Grand Slam supervisor, Donna Kelso.
But they could change nothing, least of all Osaka’s superior play and seemingly inevitable march to victory.
“She played an amazing match,” Williams conceded. “She deserved credit. She deserved to win.”
Osaka’s power, speed and ability to shut out the distractions allowed her to prevail over Williams, who was also vying to become the first woman to win seven U.S. titles in the Open era. It would have been her first since giving birth to a daughter last year.
But what should have been a moment of uninhibited joy for Osaka turned into tears of sadness. The postmatch celebration was tarnished by the angry booing from fans upset over what they perceived as Ramos’ unfair treatment of Williams, and amid the cacophony, amplified by the closed roof because of rain, Osaka pulled her visor down over her face and cried.
Osaka, 20, moved to the United States at age 3 and grew up idolizing and emulating Williams, one of the pre-eminent champions in sports. She did a school report on Williams when she was in third grade.
“I colored it and everything,” she said. “I said, ‘I want to be like her.'”
But on this day, she was better.
Not only did Osaka demonstrate a steely nerve in the face of daunting pressure, she was quicker than Williams and hit the ball harder and cleaner. Williams hit 21 unforced errors to Osaka’s 14, and Osaka won 73 percent of points on her first serve to 63 percent for Williams.
She broke Williams in the fourth game of the first set and was preventing Williams from getting as close to the baseline as she — and Mouratoglou — would have preferred.
But in the second set, the match descended into chaos, all instigated by the slightest of hand gestures.
In the second game, Ramos spotted Mouratoglou urging Williams to move up, and Mouratoglou conceded that he was, in fact, coaching. But he argued that it is done by every coach in every match and that the warning was the cause of what followed. He said Ramos should have quietly told Williams to inform him to cut it out.
“That’s what umpires do all year,” the coach said, “and it would have ended there, and we would have avoided a drama that was totally avoidable.”
Williams approached the chair to tell Ramos that it was a “thumbs-up” gesture and that she would never accept coaching on court, which is against the rules of Grand Slam events.
“I don’t cheat to win,” she said in a stern tone. “I’d rather lose.”
During the next changeover, tensions seemed to simmer down during a civil exchange when Williams explained to Ramos that she understood he might have interpreted some coaching but that none actually existed.
Williams went back on court, held her serve in that game and then broke Osaka’s serve to take a 3-1 lead in the second set. If she could have consolidated that break, it might have turned the flow of the match. But Osaka broke right back, and after the game ended, Williams destroyed her racket by throwing it to the court in anger.
That resulted in a racket abuse penalty, a second code violation for which the penalty is a point. Osaka would start the next game ahead by 15-0.
When Williams realized that, she argued more and demanded that Ramos apologize to her and make an announcement to the crowd that she was not receiving any coaching. Ramos, known for his no-nonsense approach, did not relent.
“You owe me an apology,” Williams said. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated.”
When the next changeover came, with Osaka leading, 4-3, Williams, still visibly distraught over what she perceived as unfair treatment, told Ramos that he had stolen a point from her and called him a “thief.” For that, Ramos gave Williams a third code violation, which meant she lost a game. Without swinging her racket, Osaka was now ahead, 5-3, and one game from the championship.
Williams did not appear to realize that Osaka had been given the game until she reached the baseline again. Now fuming, she returned to the chair and demanded to speak to Earley and Kelso.
Fighting back tears as the crowd yelled, hooted and booed, Williams pleaded her case. She said the treatment was unfair and argued that male players routinely behave in the same manner without facing penalties.
“There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right,” Williams told one official.
Later, at a postmatch news conference, she accused Ramos of sexism for issuing a code violation for her “thief” accusation.
During the on-court incident, Osaka kept her back to the dispute, bouncing up and down and checking her racket while facing the wall. Her ability to contend with the delays, and not be overwhelmed by the emotions swirling in the stadium, was critical to her victory.
“The crowd was really noisy, so I really didn’t hear,” she said. “Like, I really didn’t hear anything that was going on. And when I turned around, it was 5-3. So I was a little bit confused then. But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she’s such a great champion, and I know that she can come back from any point.”
For Williams, the unpleasant ending was reminiscent of her semifinal here against Kim Clijsters in 2009, when Williams was issued a point penalty on match point for threatening a lineswoman. She also mentioned a contentious match against Jennifer Capriati at the Open in 2004. (In those matches, the chair umpires were women.)
When Saturday’s match was over, Osaka’s celebration was muted. She climbed up to her box and hugged her mother, who was crying, and then came back on court for an awkward trophy ceremony in which no one seemed pleased.
As the players stood next to each other, fans booed, and Williams, seeing how upset Osaka was, moved over and put her arm around the new champion and then pleaded with the fans not to boo.
Osaka, in her speech, apologized to the fans, acknowledging that most of the fans were rooting for Williams in her quest to set a career record.
“I know that she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right?” Osaka said later. “Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person, right? I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player.”
Then, tearing up, she added, “Anyway, when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
The New York Times