Serena Williams may steal the headlines after Saturday's US Open final but Naomi Osaka will have many more years to steal the show as her future looks bright.
But the one thing almost everyone can agree upon is that Naomi Osaka deserved her moment to shine at the centre of Arthur Ashe stadium following her victory, and to be able to hear her name announced as the US Open champion without the bellowing boos raining down on her from the crowd.
The 20-year-old did everything right to earn that historic moment as Japan’s first-ever Grand Slam singles champion. She blasted through a difficult draw, dropping just 34 games en route to the title, and taking out the likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Madison Keys and her long-time idol Serena Williams to top it all off.
She made a nerveless start to the title decider against Williams, going toe-to-toe with the sport’s greatest of all-time, who was contesting her 31st Grand Slam final. You would never have guessed that it was Osaka’s first.
The Japanese sensation, who is the youngest US Open women’s champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006, was beating Williams at her own game. She was calmly finding her spots with her serve, unleashing huge and inch-perfect groundstrokes, cleverly choosing the right moments to pull the trigger, and being clutch when she needed to get out of trouble.
Osaka grew up looking up to Williams, and even wrote a report about the American when she was in the third grade. It was about how much she wanted to be like her.
When she’s in tough situations on court, she often thinks, ‘What would Serena do?’
On Saturday, Osaka was thinking it while actively beating her.
Even when Williams was unraveling over the code violations handed to her by chair umpire Ramos, Osaka barely flinched. When she lost serve, after saving 21 consecutive break points through her previous matches up to that point, she broke back immediately, twice.
In a contest that was dubbed as one between a master and an apprentice, it was the young underdog who was acting like the pro.
After the last interruption that saw Williams receive a game penalty and put Osaka in the position to serve for the championship, Osaka sealed the deal on her second opportunity, with a service winner. Just like Williams would have done.
But while other Slam champions sink to the floor in celebration, or bury their faces in the ground in disbelief, Osaka’s reaction was reserved and understated. She pulled down her visor in an attempt to hide her face. She then saw Williams moving over towards her side of the court so she sped up her step so she could meet her idol halfway. Osaka was crying, and the tears kept coming as Williams hugged her.
Osaka had mixed feelings; her dream was playing out but not the way she thought it would.
She broke into tears during her press conference when trying to describe what she was feeling at that moment.
“I know that 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 said before pausing as she was overcome by emotion.
“When I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
It’s the same kid that grew up near the tournament, and would jog around the Unisphere outside the US Open grounds. Osaka, who moved to New York when she was three before eventually ending up in Florida six years later, said earlier in the tournament that the city made her feel nostalgic. When the time came for her to shine following a performance of a lifetime, against her idol, in New York; New Yorkers ended up booing her. There is something deeply flawed about that scenario, irrespective of what happened between Williams and Ramos.
For every word that will be written about Williams’ on-court drama, many more should be dedicated to Osaka’s poise during the final, her grace in the face of hostility, and her unforgettable tennis throughout the fortnight.
She won her first-ever title – at any level – in Indian Wells last March, and her second career trophy was hoisted at the US Open. Considering this is just her starting point, just imagine how far she can go in the future.
The movie ‘A Star is Born’ is set to be released in US theatres next month. As far as I’m concerned, the real premiere was on Arthur Ashe stadium on Saturday evening.
Just watch her shine bright!