Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese tennis player to win a grand slam. It happened in the strangest of ways.
In the finals at the US Open, the 20-year-old Osaka defeated 36-year-old Serena Williams mainly with a commanding display of precociousness that is most reminiscent of, well, Serena Williams. But Osaka’s victory was overshadowed and perhaps even sealed by a series of violations called against Williams, the sport’s winningest player, who had a warning, a point penalty, and then a game penalty called against her by match umpire Carlos Ramos, taking the score in the second set from 4-3 to 5-3 with Osaka in the lead.
Williams received the warning for getting coaching from her box, and the point penalty for breaking her racquet. After she approached the umpire demanding an apology and insisting she didn’t cheat—”I have never cheated in my life; I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her,” she told Ramos—she called the umpire a thief who “stole” a point from her. Ramos responded with the one-game penalty.
In a dramatic moment with the head referee and tournament supervisor, both of whom were called onto the court, a tearful Williams argued that men in the sport had said far worse to umpires without drawing such a heavy penalty. “To lose a game for saying that, it’s not fair, I mean it’s really not,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of men out here who’ve said a lot of things, and because they are men, it doesn’t happen to them. Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take [a game] away from me? I know you can’t change it but it’s not right.”
Williams, already down a set, pulled herself together to take the second set to 5-4, but Osaka took the next game to double match point. Two points later, Osaka was a grand slam winner.
Though born in Japan, to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka has spent most of her life in the United States. “I can understand way more Japanese than I can speak,” Osaka told USA Today. “And when I go to Japan people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a black girl.”
Still, Osaka has been embraced in Japan. Her exploits at the US Open have been front page news. According to Reuters, Japanese fans are taken with the combination of her incredible athleticism and playful charm.
Osaka grew up idolizing Williams. “When I was a little kid I always dreamed I would play Serena in a Grand Slam final,” Osaka said before the match. As Chris Chase points out in USA Today, Osaka was just five months old at the time of Williams’s first WTA match, and Williams had already won six of her 23 grand slams when Osaka was five years old. With a similar game predicated on powerful baseline strokes and a strong serve, Osaka is a natural successor to Williams.
During the trophy ceremony after the match, where the crowd booed, seemingly in support of Williams, the 23-time grand slam champion skirted any talk about the controversy and focused her comments on Osaka. “She played well and this is her first grand slam,” she said, eliciting cheers. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit is due,” she continued. “Congratulations, Naomi.”
Osaka, too, had the crowd behind her. ”I’m sorry it had to end like this,” she told them, before receiving her tournament prize check of $3.8 million.
Williams, who has made an incredible comeback to the top of the sport after life-threatening post-pregnancy complications, will have to wait until 2019 for a shot at her 24th grand slam, and her first as a mom.