In a final riddled with controversy as Serena Williams was handed a game penalty by umpire Carlos Ramos, Naomi Osaka made history by becoming Japan's first ever Grand Slam singles champion.
The majority of us don’t know what it feels like to come face-to-face with our idols, compete against them on the biggest stage and then go on to defeat them, making history and realising a lifelong dream in the process.
On Saturday, Naomi Osaka allowed us to peek into her soul and catch a glimpse of what it meant to her to beat Serena Williams in the US Open final 6-2, 6-4, and become Japan’s first-ever player – man or woman – to win a Grand Slam singles title.
In a match overshadowed by controversy due to Williams’ outburst over decisions made by Portuguese umpire Carlos Ramos, the 20-year-old Osaka showed focus and poise beyond her years, but when it was all over, she looked more sad than happy on the podium of one of the biggest tournaments in the world.
The US Open crowd booed as tears kept falling down Osaka’s face. Williams, who was also crying – due to the outrage she felt at Ramos giving her three code violations that resulted in a game penalty – put her arms around Osaka and tried to comfort her.
It was the saddest-looking trophy ceremony we’ve seen in recent history and one would never have guessed that Osaka had just claimed her first Grand Slam trophy by watching it.
“It feels very emotional. I feel happy and sad at the same time and I think this is the most I’ve ever cried,” Osaka told Canada’s TSN channel shortly after.
In her press conference, the Japanese-Haitian sensation, who wrote a report about Williams in the third grade and how much she wanted to be like her, explained how she was feeling at the end of the match.
“Your question is making me emotional,” Osaka told reporters in New York while tearing up.
“Okay, because I know that, like, she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. Like, 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. But then when I hugged her at the net…” Osaka added before stopping again, overcome by emotion.
“Anyway, when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
Osaka played lights-out tennis to deny Williams the chance to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles. She became the youngest US Open women’s champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006, and on Monday, will become the new world No. 7, the highest ranking earned by a Japanese woman since Kimiko Date in October 1996.
“It doesn’t really feel that real right now. I think maybe in a few days I’ll realise what I’ve done. Right now it just feels, like, I don’t know. Aside from the fact there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament,” admitted Osaka.
It may take us all a while to digest everything that happened on court on Saturday as once again, Williams found herself caught in controversy, as an outburst directed at Ramos hijacked the second set and finale to the match.
After dropping the opening set to Osaka in 34 minutes, Williams received a coaching code violation from Ramos in the second game of the second set. He spotted her coach Patrick Mouratoglou signalling something to Williams and correctly deemed it against the rules, according to a statement released by the tournament.
Mouratoglou later told Pam Shriver on ESPN that he was indeed coaching Williams.
“Well, I am honest, I was coaching… Sascha [Bajin] was coaching the whole time, too,” said Mouratoglou, referring to Osaka’s coach, who used to be Williams’ hitting partner.
A furious Williams argued with Ramos and assured him: “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.”
The following changeover, she continued to explain to the umpire how she never gets any on-court coaching, even during WTA matches, where it’s allowed.
“He alleged that I was cheating, and I wasn’t cheating. Then I had a good conversation with him. I said, ‘Listen, you know my character. You know me really well. Like you know that I don’t even call for on-court coach. I don’t even do that’,” Williams told reporters in her press conference of her conversation with Ramos.
“He’s like, ‘You know what? I understand’. I don’t know if he said, ‘You’re right’. But he understood. He’s, like, ‘Yeah, I get what you’re saying’.
“Then when I sat down, I said it again. I was, like, ‘Just to be clear, I can understand what you saw because it may have looked — just because I look at my box, it may have looked like I was getting coaching, but I’m telling you, that’s not what I do’. I said, I’d rather lose than have to cheat to win. I don’t need to cheat to win. I’ve won enough. That’s never been something I’ve ever done, you know.
“And he was cool. He was like, ‘Oh, I get it’. We had this great exchange. We were on the same page. We understood each other.”
That didn’t mean her code violation was not issued though.
Williams got her first, and only service break of the match soon after, to go ahead 3-1, ending a remarkable streak of 21 consecutive break points saved by Osaka at that time of the tournament.
But Osaka struck right back, breaking for 2-3, which resulted in Williams smashing her racquet. That was a second violation from the 36-year-old, which meant Ramos had to issue a point penalty.
But since Williams didn’t believe she deserved the first code, she launched a tirade on the umpire, demanding an apology from him.
“Every time I play here I have problems… You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life,” said Williams, referring to tantrums she’s had with umpires at the US Open in the past, in 2011 and 2014.
Osaka broke serve once more to lead 4-3 with a stunning passing shot after which Williams came at Ramos again.
“You’re attacking my character. You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are a liar. You owe me an apology… Don’t talk to me!” she said, in what appeared to be the end of the discussion.
Instead she continued: “How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me, you’re a thief too!”
That last line drove Ramos to issue a third code violation, for verbal abuse, which in a tennis match, warrants a game penalty since it was her third strike, and that immediately put Osaka in the position to serve for the championship title.
The Grand Slam Rule Book states the following regarding verbal abuse: “For the purposes of this Rule, verbal abuse is defined as a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.”
Neither player fully realised what had just happened and Williams was outraged to find out that it was actually her turn to serve again because she had been given a game penalty.
She called the tournament referee Brian Earley – working at his final Grand Slam – but her pleas were futile as he couldn’t overrule Ramos.
“This has happened to me too many times. That is not fair!” said Williams in tears.
She held serve then turned to WTA supervisor Donna Kelso, arguing with her in despair.
Serving for the trophy at 5-4, Osaka remained laser-focused and was as clutch as ever, sealing the victory with a good serve to secure a maiden Slam title.
Her reaction was subdued though as Williams walked over to hug her.
The crowd booed the ever-likeable Osaka during the trophy ceremony before Williams asked them to stop.
“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying. She just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment. I felt like, Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam. I was like, Wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that,” said the six-time US Open champion later of that moment with Osaka.
“Yeah, maybe it was the mom in me that was like, ‘Listen, we got to pull ourselves together here’.”
Williams insisted that she didn’t receive any coaching from Mouratoglou and was surprised to hear that he admitted he did it.
“We don’t have signals. We have never discussed signals. I don’t even call for on-court coaching,” she said.
Williams isn’t sure whether the umpire’s actions affected the outcome of the match but she described his calls as “sexist”.
“You definitely can’t go back in time. I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief, because I thought he took a game from me,” said Williams.
“But I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.
“For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal — like [Alize] Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine. This is outrageous.
“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Osaka admits she didn’t realise what was going on as she tried to remain focused o her side of the court. Asked if the day’s events affect how she feels about Williams, the young Japanese said: “The thing is, like, I don’t know what happened on the court. So for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me, like, at the net and on the podium. I don’t really see what would change.”