NEW YORK — Serena Williams berated the chair umpire, calling him a thief and his punishment sexist. The penalty was controversial, but the defeat thorough.
This U.S. Open final promised to be memorable. It certainly was.
Naomi Osaka played brilliantly in the biggest match of her life, winning 6-2, 6-4 in her first Grand Slam final at age 20.
For so long, Osaka dreamed of playing her idol Williams in a major final. Not just playing, but winning. That became reality on Saturday, but not in a way should could have ever imagined.
Osaka, who moved from Japan to Long Island with her family at age 3, denied Williams a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title (and first as a mom).
She became the first Japanese player to win a major. It shouldn’t be her last. She did so fearlessly, showcasing the shot-making that put her into the final dropping just one set in six matches the last two weeks.
Most notably, it came after Williams screamed at chair umpire Carlos Ramos after she was docked a point penalty for two code violations (illegal coaching from the stands and smashing her racket) in the second set.
Williams was then docked a game penalty for a third code violation, verbal abuse after calling Ramos “a thief” over the first violation. At the time she was down a break, 4-3, in the second set. The penalty made it 5-3 in favor of Osaka.
Williams won the next game on her serve to cut it to 5-4. Osaka then closed out the championship on her serve.
There was no scream. No drop to the court. No fist pump or racket toss. Osaka tugged at her visor and jaunted to the net.
“It just still didn’t really feel that real,” said Osaka, who has admired Williams for so long that she did a third-grade report on her 12 years ago. “So for me it just felt like a normal match just walking up to the net. But it’s Serena that’s on the other side. She hugged me, and it was really awesome.
“When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person, right? 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.”
Williams received that first code violation when Ramos deemed that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gave Williams illegal advice from her box at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Early in the second set, Mouratoglou appeared to make a hand gesture looking at Williams suggesting she move closer to the net during points. Williams denied she received the coaching, telling Ramos between points:
“One thing I’ve never done is cheat. If he gives me a thumbs up, he’s telling me to come on. We don’t have any code, and I know you don’t know that. And I understand why you may have thought that was coaching, but I’m telling you it’s not. I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
Mouratoglou said after the match that he was coaching, but he didn’t think Williams even saw it.
“I was [coaching], like 100 percent of the coaches on 100 percent of the matches,” Mouratoglou said after the match on ESPN, adding that he had never before been called for a coaching violation. “So we have to stop this hypocrite thing. [Osaka’s coach] Sascha [Bajin] was coaching every point, too. It’s strange because this chair umpire was the chair umpire for most of the finals of Rafa [Nadal], and Toni [Nadal] is coaching every single point.”
Later in the second set, Williams received a second code violation for smashing her racket after being broken on serve. She approached Ramos’ chair after she realized she had been, by rule, docked a point for two code violations.
“This is unbelievable,” she said, approaching Ramos. “Every time I play here, I have problems [Williams had memorable arguments with chair umpires in 2004 and 2011 U.S. Open losses, plus told a lineswoman she would stuff a tennis ball down her throat in a 2009 defeat.]. … I didn’t get coaching. I didn’t get coaching. I didn’t get coaching. You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. I don’t cheat. I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that? … You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right for her. I’ve never cheated. You owe me an apology. You will never do another one of my matches.”
After Osaka went up 4-3, Williams again spoke at Ramos from her chair, saying, “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too.”
Ramos gave Williams a third violation for verbal abuse, which constitutes a game penalty, putting her down 5-3 and on the brink of defeat.
“Are you kidding me?” Williams repeated. “Because I said you’re a thief? Because you stole a point from me. But I’m not a cheater. I told you to apologize to me.”
Williams then asked for the tournament referee Brian Earley to come out. Earley and WTA supervisor Donna Kelso heard Williams out. She told them as the crowd booed:
“That’s not right. You know me. You know my character. And that’s not right. This is not fair. This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. This is not fair. To lose a game for saying that is not fair. … You know how many other men do things that are much worse than that? This is not fair. This is unbelievable. … There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right. I know you can’t admit, but I know you know it’s not right. I know you can’t change it, but I’m just saying that’s not right. I get the rules, but I’m just saying it’s not right. It happened to me at this tournament every single year that I play is just not fair. That’s all I have to say. It’s not fair.”
Williams added in a post-match press conference: “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief,’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.'”
After the match, Williams pointed up to Ramos and said, again, “You owe me an apology.” Osaka sat and cried as the crowd booed while Ramos came down from his chair.
Ten minutes later, the trophy presentation. More crowd boos. Osaka pulled her black visor down as tears continued to stream. Williams put her right arm around Osaka and her left hand on Osaka’s elbow. She said a few words to Osaka as the 20-year-old wiped away a tear. Osaka smiled.
“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying,” Williams said in the later press conference. “You know, she just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment. I felt like, wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam [in 1999]. I was like, wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.
“Yeah, maybe it was the mom in me that was like, listen, we got to pull ourselves together here.”
Williams was the first to speak to the crowd.
“I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to do questions,” she said when asked to put the match in perspective. “I just want to tell you guys, she played well, and this is her first Grand Slam. … (crowd applause) … And I know you guys were here rooting, and I was rooting, too. But let’s make this the best moment we can, and we’ll get through it. Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re going to get through this, and let’s be positive. So congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.
“I hope to continue to go and play here again. We’ll see. It’s been a tough year for me.”
Then Osaka was asked how the match compared to her dreams of playing Williams in a Grand Slam final.
“I’m going to sort of defer from your question, I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”
It ended a stressful stretch that began Friday night.
“I just kept thinking about my match,” Osaka said later.
She tried to get her mind off it. Minutes before the match, she approached Novak Djokovic, who plays in Sunday’s final against Juan Martin del Potro.
She tried to say hello in Serbian to Djokovic, as she has learned a bit of the language from her coach, former Williams hitting partner Sascha Bajin. She didn’t think Djokovic understood what she said.
Then Osaka, immediately before taking the court for the biggest match of her life, her first Grand Slam final, told national TV that she was nervous.
Yet she dominated the first set, converting both of her break points and closing it out with a 117 mile-per-hour serve into Williams’ body. The most powerful player in history could only bat it awkwardly into the net.
“I was just thinking that I’ve watched Serena play so many times, that this is a really good opportunity to win my first major,” Osaka said afterward.
The second-set madness with Williams, the chair umpire and the tournament referee did nothing to deter Osaka.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “Since it was my first Grand Slam [final], I didn’t want to be overwhelmed too much, so I wasn’t really looking.”
Williams acknowledged Osaka was playing “really well” at the time. And that she would have “needed to do a lot” to change the trajectory of the match.
“There’s a lot I can learn from [Osaka] from this match,” Williams said.Follow @nzaccardi