In her third grade, Naomi Osaka wrote a school report on tennis superstar, Serena Williams. In the years that followed, Osaka rose through the ranks of the game by admiring and emulating Williams, often dreaming of playing a match against the 23-time Grand Slam champion. Her dream became a reality as she faced Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open women’s singles finals, eventually defeating her idol in straight sets to become the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam.
For 20-year old Osaka, the historic victory was nothing short of monumental. The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, she moved to the United States at the age of three after being born in Japan. Carrying dual citizenship, it was her father’s idea to register her with the Japan Tennis Association, where she turned pro in September 2013. After several good performances in 2017 and 2018, she faced the ultimate test of her tennis career – a shot at the U.S. Open trophy against her idol, Serena Williams. The 36-year old veteran was chasing an elusive 24th Grand Slam title herself, which would have tied the all-time record held by Margaret Court for 45 years. For Williams, it was also her 9th U.S. Open finals.
The match started with a great demonstration of tennis from both players. However, the young Osaka showed superior strength and stamina – winning the first set 6-2. It was, however, during the second set of the match, that all hell broke loose. With Williams winning 1-0, umpire Carlos Ramos issued her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, a code violation for coaching her during the course of the game. She retaliated, stating, “I don’t cheat to win”. She eventually managed to break Osaka’s serve to lead the second set 3-1.
The drama was far from over, as Williams smashed her racquet to the ground after being infuriated as a close line call decision went against her. This resulted in the umpire booking her for a second violation and docking a point off her, as Osaka tied the set 3-3. Williams’ ongoing argument with the umpire reached boiling point, as she called him a liar and a cheat. After Osaka led the second set 4-3, Williams, once again, demanded that the umpire made an announcement that she didn’t cheat in the first place. The umpire, unnerved, issued her with a third violation and gave her a game penalty. Losing 3-5 now, Williams went into tears, as Osaka hold her nerves to clinch the final game, winning the second set 6-4. She had become the first Japanese player to not only win a U.S. Open singles title, but also a Grand Slam. Her composure in the chaotic final prevailed – as she won the match 6-2, 6-4.
Serena Williams was later fined $17,000 for three code violations during the match. She criticized the umpire of sexism, stating that men get away with much harsher comments on the match referee. Nonetheless, her tirade and accusations masked the brilliant performance of Osaka, who kept her celebrations relatively mute amidst the controversy.
Osaka’s victory is sure to lift the spirits of millions of Japanese citizens who battle the impact of several natural disasters affecting the country since August 2018. As for the 20-year old, the match will forever be etched on to her memory for more reasons than the obvious one.