How Naomi Osaka answered chaos with calm to win the US Open crown

by: Steve Tignor | September 08, 2018

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WATCH—Wrapping up the women’s US Open final:

 NEW YORK—“How about that Naomi Osaka, wasn’t she incredible?”

Ideally, those would be the first words out of people’s mouths when they start discussing Osaka’s 6-2, 6-4 victory over Serena Williams in the US Open women’s final on Saturday. Ideally, that discussion would revolve around the 20-year-old wunderkind’s smart mix of serves; her ability to absorb Serena’s pace and send it back with interest, like few others can; her spectacular forehand passing shots; and most of all, her amazing ability to hold her nerve when everything around her was descending into chaos, and close out her first major title in her first major final, against the best opponent of all.

Unfortunately, that won’t be Topic A when it comes to this match on Sunday, or any time soon. Topic A will be the three penalties that chair umpire Carlos Ramos handed out to Williams over the course of the match, and which eventually sent it careening as far off the rails as any Grand Slam final in memory. Before we get back to Osaka, here are some thoughts on Topic A. It was, in terms of tennis’s vast gray area of rules and regulations, an unfortunately perfect storm.

WATCH—Drama unfolds between Serena and Carlos Ramos:

*****

Coaching violation: Ramos gave Serena a code violation for coaching in the second game of the second set. The call was legitimate—strict, but legitimate. Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, later admitted that he was signaling her (to move up in the court, it appeared). That’s not something that’s called the majority of the time, but everyone is aware that it’s illegal.

Racquet abuse violation: When Serena was broken for 3-2 in the second set, she threw her racquet down and broke the frame. That’s an automatic code violation. And because of the previous violation for coaching, the two together added up to an automatic point penalty.

Serena’s reaction: Serena took the coaching penalty personally—“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose”—and said she thought Mouratoglou was giving her a “thumb’s up.” She went so far as to have a discussion with Ramos on the next changeover, to make it clear “that’s never been something I’ve ever done.” 

“He alleged that I was cheating,” Serena said later, “and I wasn’t cheating.”


(Photos by Anita Aguilar)

This points up a weird aspect of the coaching rule: While the coach initiates the foul, it’s the player who must deal with the penalty.

The real problems began when Serena slammed her racquet down and received a point penalty. That brought Serena’s mind back to the original coaching violation, which she still disputed. This time she wanted Ramos to apologize and rescind the call.

Game penalty: After Osaka broke for 4-3 in the second set, Serena continued to complain to Ramos, and called him a “thief.” Ramos responded by assessing Serena a rare game penalty, which gave Osaka a 5-3 lead.

Mouratoglou can be blamed for coaching and getting caught. Serena can be blamed for bringing the point penalty on herself with her racquet smash, and for not letting the coaching issue go. But Ramos’s game penalty was still excessive. 

A good umpire—and Ramos has been among the most respected for years—has to recognize the stakes in any given situation and adjust for them. Instead, with the US Open title on the line, he tipped the scales of the match significantly because a player called him a thief. (As far as I heard, Serena didn’t curse at him.) Ramos would have been better off warning Serena that if she didn’t stop, a game penalty would be coming.

*****

While Serena was at the center of the storm during the match, she did her part to calm it afterward. Just as the trophy ceremony appeared destined to drown in a sea of Ashe Stadium boos, Serena took the microphone and said, “Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.”

Serena was equally complimentary of Osaka in her press conference, and refused to pin the result on Ramos’s actions.

“I feel like she was playing really well,” Williams said. “but I feel like I really needed to do a lot to change in that match to try to come out front, to try to come out on top.”

Which takes us back to what should have been Topic A all along: Osaka’s performance. 

It began, really, two nights before, when she beat Madison Keys in the semifinals and immediately embraced the chance to play Serena in the final. There was awe in her voice, but no fear, no hesitation, no nerves. She wanted this moment, and she played like it.

Asked on ESPN after the match whether she had been helped by having played Serena earlier this year in Miami, Osaka smiled and said she already knew Serena’s game very well from watching her so closely for so many years—she even “did a whole report on her in third grade.” From the start, Osaka, like a good student, did all of the things that Serena traditionally does to her opponents. 

It was Osaka who kept Serena off-balance with serves that curled into the body, slid out wide, and curved away from her down the T.

“I think my serve was important in the whole match,” Osaka said. “She’s such a good returner, and I felt like really had to hit the spots today.”

It was Osaka who took Serena’s hard-hit ground strokes, and sent them back more cleanly and accurately. It was Osaka who, when Serena pushed her wide with an approach, won the point with a better pass. It was Osaka who, when Serena let out a fierce “Come on!” at 1-4 in the first set, answered with a “Come on!” of her own and held with an ace. From a playing standpoint, and from an attitude standpoint, Osaka approached this match with just the right mix self-possession and assertiveness.

In the end, the chaos that engulfed the match and the stadium failed to engulf one person, Osaka. If anything, it only served to emphasize just how calm and collected she was. As Serena argued with officials, Osaka put her head down and walked away. When she looked up, she was suddenly one game away from the title.

“I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she’s such a great champion,” Osaka said, “and I know that she can come back from any point.”

How does Serena close out a match against a great player? She uses her serve. Like a good student again, that’s how Osaka closed out Serena—by not letting her hit the ball. Serving for the championship at 5-3, with 23,000 people baying in the stands and Serena making a goal-line stand, Osaka hit a forehand winner, a service winner, an ace, and, at 40-30, another service winner to end it.

“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.”

“But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”

Little kid, US Open champion, port in a storm. We’ll remember what happened on Serena’s side of the net in this match for a long time. Hopefully, we’ll remember what happened on Osaka’s side for much longer.

How about that Naomi Osaka, wasn’t she incredible?


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