“I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
This wasn’t how the first Japanese player - male or female - in history to win a Grand Slam final should have been rewarded. Her adidas cap shielded her wet eyes, blushed cheeks and sheer embarrassment at the behaviour of the 25,000 strong crowd, as Flushing Meadows truly disgraced itself in September 2018.
All-time great, fan favourite, and Miss Americana, Serena Williams, had been defeated in straight sets in the US Open by a young upstart just a year out of her teens.
“I just want to say thank you for watching the match,” Williams’ young history-making victor meekly addressed those congregated inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium, a venue named after the great man who had himself broken history half a century earlier in NYC.
It should have been the happiest day of her life. Her first Grand Slam final. Her first Grand Slam title.
But with her dignified reception of the prestigious trophy following an almost unblemished performance on her side of the square, a stellar 20-year-old Naomi Osaka showed what the New York crowd was sorely lacking: sheer class.
The two-week long tournament’s dominating narrative had been Serena Williams' efforts in attempting to emulate Margaret Court’s long-standing record of 24 Grand Slam titles, having been stuck on her 23rd since the Australian Open at the beginning of 2017. It became evident that that was the blockbuster narrative desired by the majority privileged enough to witness the tournament’s conclusion on September 8, 2018, when the competition had been narrowed down to two.
Subsequently Williams’ frustrations at being denied by a competitor 16 years her junior, combined with perceived injustice through the decisions of chair umpire Carlos Ramos. This was compounded by a now-infamous on-court tirade, that was strikingly illuminated by the composure of the young woman on the opposite side of the net to the 36-year-old, experienced Williams.
Through the course of the one hour twenty minute match, Williams was given three code violations by Ramos in the US Open final, to eventually concede victory 6-2, 6-4 to the lady from Chūō-ku. The first came as a result of what Ramos deemed coaching from her box, the second for smashing her racquet, costing her a point, and the third came after she called Ramos “a thief”. Such was the animosity between the man in the chair and the women with the racquet, which translated into the bubbling crowd, Ramos had to be escorted by security off the court and did not return for the trophy presentation.
The events of that final in September 2018 overshadowed what should have been the baptism of a brilliant career for an extremely talented tennis player. First, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi was booed as he began conducting the trophy presentation, with Chairman and President of the USTA Katrina Adams exacerbating matters and fuelling the crowd by suggesting that “perhaps it wasn’t the finish we were looking for today,” leading to Osaka offering a heartfelt apology to the undeserving audience.
Just under two years later, Naomi Osaka need not have apologised to absolutely anyone.
First she proved immediately she wasn’t a one-trick pony, that her result in New York wasn’t anomalous, nor that Serena Williams had indeed been robbed. Osaka did this by immediately complementing the U.S Grand Slam with the Australian Open singles’ title the following January, with victory over Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic 7–6, 5–7, 6–4. A pro since the age of 16 after a shielded youth career, as of August 2020, Osaka has five WTA titles to her name, and has been declared the first player from Asia to reach No. 1 in the singles rankings (on two occasions, between January and June 2019, and then again for four weeks in the August). Plus she was named by Forbes as the highest-paid female athlete in the world, completing a remarkable rise that has lifted her out of self-imposed anonymity.
In August 2020, the 22-year-old tennis star raked in $37.4 million (£28m) in the preceding 12 months, allowing her to dispose Serena’s four-year status at the top of the pile. And at the same time she set a new standard for the women’s game, in surpassing Maria Sharapova’s previously held-title for the most money earned by a female athlete in a single year. According to Forbes, Osaka now has 15 endorsement partners, including global brands like Nissan Motor, Nike and Yonex, whose tennis racquets she has used for more than a decade; almost all are worth seven figures annually. It is a remarkable ascendency, when one considers Osaka wasn't even ranked on Forbes' 2019 list of highest-paid athletes. Today she ranks in the 29th spot and Williams 33rd among the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world.
More importantly, Osaka - with a Japanese mother and Haitian father - is a perfect candidate to take over Williams’ (who will turn 40 in 2021) heavy mantle as both a visible woman of colour and exceptional talent advocating on the international tennis scene. Osaka was born in 1997. At that point Serena Williams had already been trying to compete in the top tennis tournaments for nigh on two years, and finished the year ranked as one of the best 100 female players in the world. Williams was a player Osaka rightly idolised as she grew up on the east coast of the USA, a country she had been resident of since she was three years old.
"It was always my dream to play Serena in the US Open finals so I am really glad I was able to do that," Osaka said as she was proclaimed the 2018 tournament champion, with the defeated Williams having to wrap around the upset Japanese champion, and using her consolation speech to remind the audience that Osaka was a deserving winner; “So no more booing”.
Serena Williams shouldn’t have had to tell the Flushing Meadows’ crowd to support Naomi Osaka.
Because her talent, grace, decorum, and humility should have been enough. Naomi Osaka is a £28million player worth every single penny.