Give Naomi Osaka the Moment She Deserves

Naomi Osaka, right, with Serena Williams during the trophy ceremony after their United States Open final on Saturday.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

So was the chair umpire Carlos Ramos truly a thief in Saturday’s United States Open women’s final? Not by the letter of tennis law.

But Ramos, Serena Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou and, above all, Williams herself bear responsibility for the way an intense, gripping final between a great champion and a great young talent turned ugly.

The only full-blown victim on Saturday was the winner: Naomi Osaka.

She has the trophy after a 6-2, 6-4 victory — an extraordinary achievement for a 20-year-old playing in her first Grand Slam final in what felt like a road game from the start. Cheers for Williams reverberated under the closed roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest showplace in the sport.

But Osaka will never get her breakthrough moment back. If there was bona fide thievery on Saturday —- this was only a tennis match, after all — it was in that.

Williams got the experience her talent and commitment deserved in 1999. It came in the same Ashe Stadium, where she played boldly and often brilliantly at age 17 to upset top-ranked Martina Hingis and win her first Grand Slam singles title in her first Grand Slam final.

There were no caveats, no boos raining down as her trophy ceremony began, no tears brought on by mixed emotions on a day that was rightfully all about wide-eyed joy (unless you were Hingis).

But Osaka had to deal with all of the above after one of the finest matches ever played by a youngster in her position.

She absorbed everything that Williams and the chaotic circumstances could hurl at her and somehow stayed in the zone.

“I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything,” Osaka said. “And I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point.”

That is easily said but rarely achieved, and though Osaka was the portrait of poise and focus on Saturday, that has not been the case throughout her short career. She has struggled with negativity, self doubt, shot selection under pressure and consistency.

Only two years ago, she blew a 5-1 lead in the third set to lose to Madison Keys in the third round of the U.S. Open as her movement and nerves betrayed her. And though she was brilliant in winning the title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March this year, she lost in the first round in her two lead-in tournaments before this U.S. Open.

But with her new coach Sascha Bajin setting a positive tone, she became a champion in New York.

“Ultimately, you never know what you’re made out of until you’re tested,” Bajin said. “Naomi was thrown in there into deep water today. 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.”

She arrived with no nagging injuries and her improved fitness allowed her to stay in rallies longer without feeling the need to go for broke. Her footwork, particularly the quick adjustment steps, is also much improved, and her leg drive has increased her serving power and her ability to hit flat, full-force serves to all sections of the box.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Christopher Clarey