The US Open should have been one of the showpiece events of the sporting summer.
The wealthiest of tennis’ four grand slam events, the New York tournament has a rich history and boasted a record purse.
And yet, after the events that unfolded in Saturday’s women’s final at Flushing Meadow, no one – not the players, the officials, administrators, the fans or the sport itself – emerged as a winner.
Perhaps the biggest loser in it all was the eventual champion, Naomi Osaka, whose moment of glory was taken away in the aftermath of a tirade by Williams.
It started when chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code violation for coaching, and eventually ended up with accusations of sexism in the aftermath.
You are only a first-time major singles champion once, of course.
In the 10 minutes that followed her stunning 6-2 6-4 victory against the most dominant female player of the past two decades, as Arthur Ashe Stadium was being prepared for what would be a deeply awkward trophy ceremony, Osaka sat all alone in her chair as parts of the 23,000-strong crowd booed loudly.
Osaka, a shy, quirky personality who idolized Williams growing up, put her cap down over her eyes and started to cry during the trophy ceremony. It was only after Williams took the mic, and pleaded with spectators to stop booing and give credit to the new champion, that it ended.
“Ultimately, you never know what you’re made out of until you’re tested,” Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, told the New York Times.
“Naomi was thrown in there into deep water today,” said Baijin, who spent several years as the hitting partner of Williams.
“Got everything thrown at her: big bombs by Serena, the crowd, the drama. She remained with her composure. There are certain things you can train yourself to do; other things you just have, and I believe it’s a gift, what Naomi has.”
A lot has been said in the aftermath of a bizarre final, but not much attention has been paid to Osaka’s brilliant performance in the face of the storm raging on the other side of the net.
Speaking to WTA Insider two days after becoming the first Japanese player to win a grand slam singles title, Osaka said: “I hope Serena isn’t mad at me.”
But Osaka has no need to apologize. She simply did everything better than Williams; she served better, moved better and returned better.
Osaka struck six aces, twice as many as Williams. The 20-year-old won 73% of the points on her first serve, while Williams took 63%. Osaka was also able to neutralize the Williams serve, widely regarded as one of the best in all of tennis, as she won 45% of return points. Williams took 36% of her return points.
After she was given a code violation for coaching in the second game of the second set by Ramos, a fuming Williams told the umpire that she “never cheated” and “would rather lose” than do that. A racket smash by Williams led to a second code violation, and this time she was docked a point.
A visit to the court from tournament referee Brian Earley and grand slam supervisor Donna Kelso failed to diffuse the situation and, having led 3-1 in the second set, a rattled Williams lost it completely as she went down 4-3.
During the changeover, she called Ramos a “thief” and a “liar” because he “stole a point,” from her, which led to Ramos handing out a third code violation for verbal abuse, and a game penalty. Now down 5-3, Williams did manage to hold serve.
Serving for the biggest win of her life as boos reverberated around the stadium, Osaka retained her poise, as she had throughout the entire match, and slammed a huge serve out wide on her first match point to win the title.
“When I turned around, uhm, it was 5-3, so I was a little bit confused then,” Osaka said in a post-match news conference. “But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she’s such a great champion, and I know that she can come back from any point. I was just trying to focus on myself at that time.”
Although Osaka’s moment to shine was taken away from her, her victory has turned her into a superstar in Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulating her on Twitter and thanked her for “giving Japan a boost of inspiration at this time of hardship.”
Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka was raised in the US but competes for Japan. In recent years, she has taken lessons to brush up on her Japanese.
Osaka’s moment of glory may have been taken away from her, she could end up having the last laugh at the bank.
Osaka, only the second Asian woman to win a major singles title after China’s Li Na at the 2011 French Open, may soon start to out earn Williams when it comes to endorsements, according to Forbes.
“She seems almost destined to succeed Williams as the world’s highest-paid female athlete,” Forbes said, estimating her off-court earnings may increase tenfold over the next couple of years, from $1.5 million to more than $15 million a year.
With appearances on the “Today Show” and “Ellen,” in the US, the past couple of days have been a whirlwind for Osaka.
But along with her composure, she has also kept her quirky sense of humor.
Asked by WTA Insider what she was most looking forward to after her life-changing victory, she joked: “I really want to eat green tea ice cream right now, so hopefully my life can change to eat green tea ice cream.”