An indignant queen and a new poised champion

Naomi Osaka, the demure debutante, performed with the poise and polish of a veteran champion. Serena Williams, the longtime queen lost not just the match but also her dignity.

Naomi Osaka of Japan poses with the championship trophy after winning the Women's Singles final against Serena Williams.   -  AFP

"Those whom the Gods would destroy, first they would make angry." — Anonymous.

"Whatever begins in anger ends in shame." — Benjamin Franklin

What irony!

Before the most memorable US Open women’s final of the century, two questions about psychology—not technique or tactics—seemed most compelling. Would 20-year-old Naomi Osaka’s idolizing of Serena Williams block her drive to beat the GOAT in Osaka’s first Grand Slam final? And would 36-year-old Williams’ maternal instincts mellow her competitive instincts?

The answer to both questions proved to be a resounding no. The demure debutante performed with the poise and polish of a veteran champion. The longtime queen lost not just the match but also her dignity.

Though both protagonists in this dramatic duel on Arthur Ashe Stadium had great expectations, neither could have foreseen the bizarre, controversial, and in some ways, sad denouement.

“Ever since I was a little kid,” recalled Osaka, “I dreamed of playing Serena in a Grand Slam final.” Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, but raised in the United States since she was three, Osaka watched with fascination and awe as this intimidating African-American colossus overpowered opponents and amassed 23 Grand Slam titles. As a third-grader in Florida, she wrote a report on Williams. “I said, ‘I want to be like her.’”

For new mom Serena, whose fame and influence has transcended tennis, life could hardly be better. After overwhelming Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in the US Open semifinals, she talked about the life-threatening complications following a difficult childbirth and about her accelerating comeback. “Last year, I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital,” she related. “To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. This is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still. I just feel like, not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future.”

Most pundits predicted that “very, very bright future” would arrive two days later in the final. A victory over the underdog Osaka, a 50-1 pre-tournament longshot, would give Williams a record seventh US Open title. Much more important for her legacy, it would tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors, the Holy Grail of tennis.

The road to final

After an understandably slow start this season, Williams regained enough shot power and running speed to reach the Wimbledon final, losing to the estimable Angelique Kerber. Her upward momentum continued at Flushing Meadows. There she disposed of her sister Venus, 2016 finalist Karolina Pliskova, and Sevastova, who upset 2017 champion Sloane Stephens.

Serena Williams argues with referee Brian Earley over a violation during the final.   -  AFP

If Williams appeared formidable again, Osaka looked downright devastating during her run to the final. At one stage, the 5'11'', 152-pound athlete reeled off 22 straight games against shell-shocked opponents. In a superbly played fourth-round duel, Osaka edged 20-year-old Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka, another surefire future star, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. Her semifinal victim, 2017 US runner-up Madison Keys, was both outgunned and out-steadied 6-2, 6-4.

In the past two years, the hard-hitting Osaka displayed flashes of brilliance. But, at Indian Wells in March, she finally put together all her considerable talent, exceptional strokes, and growing experience. “Her court smarts have gone up so much this year,” noted Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. After whipping Maria Sharapova, Pliskova, Daria Kasatkina, and No. 1 Simona Halep (6-3, 6-0) there to capture her first title, Osaka declared, “I feel like there is a new generation, and we’re trying to push through.”

A few days later at the Miami Open, Osaka, trounced Williams, playing only her second tournament since having a baby, 6-3, 6-2. That brief Osaka peak was followed by valleys, though, including third-round losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and three straight defeats going into the US Open. She said a talk with her father boosted her spirits and helped her rebound.

Osaka was extremely nervous before the US Open final. To calm and inspire her, Sascha Bajin, her coach since last November, had her watch highlights of her Miami Open victory over Williams. Bajin also undoubtedly offered some trade secrets he gleaned as Williams’ hitting partner for eight years.

Though the 16-year age difference was the second-biggest ever in a Grand Slam women’s final, it was the six-time U.S. champion playing for a record 107 time on Arthur Ashe Stadium, not the inexperienced challenger, who cracked first. Williams self-destructed with two double faults to lose her serve and go down 2-1. Then she dug herself into a bigger 4-1 hole, losing her serve again with three costly unforced groundstroke errors and a double fault.

Osaka’s only crisis came in the sixth game. The Japanese, who saved an astounding 13 of 13 breaks points against Keys, staved off two more. Not intimidated by Serena’s screams or the wildly pro-Serena crowd, Osaka deceptively mixed up her powerful serves, dictated most of the rallies with penetrating groundstrokes, and defended effectively. In short, she looked a lot like a younger version of Serena.

Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou looks on during the Women's Singles finals match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Serena was given a code violation for on-court coaching.   -  AFP

Violation No. 1

The 6-2 opening set was no fluke, and Williams knew it. Her face looked pained and frustrated. With Osaka serving at love-1, 40-15, the psychodrama intensified. Umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code-violation warning for receiving illegal coaching from her player box. Patrick Mouratoglou had clearly motioned to Williams to get to net more, as the TV replay showed. Williams vigorously protested the ruling, contending, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.”

Those words didn’t ring true. After the match, Mouratoglou confessed, “I’m honest. I was coaching.” To try to justify his rule-breaking, he argued, “We have to stop this hypocrisy. Sascha was coaching, too. I was never called for a coaching violation once in my life.”

Feeling victimized, Williams seemed energized by the incident. And when she held serve to go ahead 2-1, the crowd stood up and roared. Ever the fighter, Williams was yelling “Come on!” and pumping her fist after winning points. She finally broke Osaka’s serve on her fourth break point to lead 3-1.

Could she somehow overcome her anger and the relentless Osaka assault to turn this match around?

Violation No. 2

Serena Williams of the US smashes her racket while playing Naomi Osaka of Japan in the final.   -  AFP

At 3-1, 30-15 for Williams, the plot suddenly turned again. Shockingly, she double faulted twice. The partisan crowd moaned and became silent. 30-40, break point for Osaka. When Williams hit a backhand into the net, she smashed her racket on the hard court.

Ramos, a highly respected Gold Badge umpire since 1994, issued a second code violation for racket abuse and assessed a point penalty. When he announced the score as love-15 to start the next game, the confused Williams became enraged. “I didn’t get coaching … I don’t cheat,” she shouted repeatedly. Taking her side, the crowd booed loudly. “You owe me an apology,” continued Williams. “I’ve never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology.”

Williams sensibly held her hand up, asked the crowd to calm down. But her own anger had so consumed her that her game and concentration were destroyed. Osaka, not distracted by the Williams histrionics, won the next three points and her service game in only 49 seconds.

“You have to admire the composure of Naomi,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert. “She’s playing against Serena and the crowd.” When Osaka blasted a forehand passing shot winner to break serve for a 4-3 lead, the verdict seemed inevitable. “It’s a new generation, and Osaka is heading it,” predicted Evert.

Violation No. 3

At the changeover, Williams, still fuming, harangued Ramos: “For you to attack my character is wrong. You owe me an apology. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.”

Ramos intoned: “Code violation. Verbal abuse.” That cost Williams a full game. One could argue that Williams was fortunate, because under the previous rules the third violation would have resulted in a default.

With the score now 5-3, Serena, fighting off tears, pleaded, “That’s not right. This is not fair.”

But it indubitably was fair. As tournament referee Brian Early, in his 26 and last year as a referee, forthrightly told Williams, “You know the rules.” And, if Williams, in her 21 year as a pro, did not know the rules about illegal coaching, racket abuse, verbal abuse and their penalties, she should have.

Two games later, the all-business Osaka closed out the final with three groundstroke winners and a 114-mph service winner to prevail 6-2, 6-4. Japan’s first Grand Slam champion epitomized Rudyard Kipling’s famous line in the poem “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

Perhaps the agitated crowd did not know the rules when they booed Ramos as he exited the stadium and ESPN announcer Tom Rinaldi when he started the trophy presentation.

Troubles in the past

Serena Williams' US Open rows   -  Getty Images

Perhaps they forgot two other US Opens when Williams disgraced herself and demeaned the sport.

In the 2009 semifinals, Williams trailed Kim Clijsters 6-4, 6-5, 15-30 when she was called for a foot fault on her second serve. Williams exploded, and, brandishing her racket, she angrily cursed and threatened a Japanese lineswoman: “If I could, I would take this f---ing ball and shove it down your f---ing throat and kill you.” Since she had already been given a warning for smashing her racket after losing the first set, the point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct dramatically ended the match.

Just as her two-year probation was expiring, Williams repeated her ugly tirades in the 2011 US Open final. That time, after the combustible American, who had yelled “Come on!” as Samantha Stosur was about to hit the ball, which violated the hindrance rule, verbally abused the chair umpire Eva Asderaki, who had penalized her a point. Williams lashed out, “If we’re ever walking down the street, stay on the other side. You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser.”

After all three transgressions, Williams was not contrite. Regrettably, she rarely admits she’s wrong or apologizes.

Serena's apologists

Apologists for Williams, like Mouratoglou, claimed that all coaches break the no-coaching rule—which is untrue. Or that since “everyone does it,” that makes it acceptable—which is absurd. Or that Ramos could have somehow defused the situation by informing the enraged Williams that if she continued her abusive tirades, she would be docked a game—which is unrealistic. “You give soft warnings [to players] at the beginning of matches, not in the thick of matches,” Carillo told MSNBC.

Or that Ramos was sexist because men pros are purportedly treated more leniently when they have mental meltdowns—which is false based on massive fines they sometimes receive. At this Open, men were assessed 23 fines for code violations, compared with nine for women. “Serena Williams was dead wrong. Carlos Ramos is not a sexist, he’s not a racist, he’s not a misogynist,” Carillo stressed. “I’ve seen him call out Rafael Nadal for illegal coaching and time violations. I’ve seen him call out Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. He calls them as he sees them. Serena was totally out of line.”

To her credit, the distraught Williams hugged Osaka after championship point. During the trophy presentation, Williams tried to calm the crowd, saying, “Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.” And she graciously praised her conqueror: “She played an amazing match.” Williams also tellingly acknowledged, “Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match.”

Indeed, Osaka’s truly sterling performance and admirable conduct were somewhat overshadowed by Williams’ contretemps, which resulted in fines totaling $17,000. “I feel so sorry for Osaka,” said Carillo. “It should be the greatest day of her life, but she almost feels like she has to apologize for being champion of the US Open. It’s all wrong. It wasn’t the dream she had, but it wasn’t a nightmare either.”

Osaka released some of the tension when she wept on her chair. She had another good cry when she gave her mother, also crying, a prolonged hug in the stands.

'Always a Serena fan'

Naomi Osaka gets a hug from Serena Williams after her win.   -  AFP

Predictably taking the high road during the awards ceremony, Osaka told the booing crowd, “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.”

In the post-final press conference, Osaka explained how she managed to compartmentalize her conflicting emotions toward Williams. “When I step on the court, I feel like a different person,” Osaka said. “I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player, playing another tennis player.” Breaking into tears, she added, “But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”

Many tennis fans around the world, though, see Williams more as a polarizing personality than the “role model” she often describes herself as.

Whether or not Williams equals, or even breaks, Court’s hallowed record next year, the spotlight shines now on a new star. Osaka is one of eight different women to have captured the last eight majors, five of them for the first time—Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Halep, and Osaka.

“I believe in Naomi Osaka more than those other names,” said Carillo. “I’m absolutely convinced she is here to stay in a big way.”

What would the iconic Arthur Ashe, a tennis star, ATP president, and human rights activist who won the first US Open in 1968, have thought of this tournament 50 years later? Ashe would likely have marveled at the gigantic, roofed stadium named to honor him, the 24/7 television and Internet coverage, and the $3.8 million prize money 2018 champions Djokovic and Osaka received. As an amateur, he received just a $28 a day stipend, while runner-up Tom Okker pocketed $14,000.

Ashe, who died 25 years ago, was convinced that United States could not rule the tennis world unless it found and developed talented minority players. He was more prophetic than he could have imagined. Ashe remains the only African-American man to capture a Grand Slam title; the last American man of any race to win any major was Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open.

What would Ashe think of 21-century superstars Serena and Venus Williams, winners of 30 major titles, including eight US Opens? He would have been fascinated by their breathtaking power and speed. He would have beamed with pride at the civil rights activism and philanthropy of the outspoken African-American sisters. But my guess is that Ashe, admired for his honorable character and impeccable sportsmanship, would have been appalled by Serena’s recent misbehavior.