I love tennis. So much so that in lieu of a vacation this summer, I stayed in New York and bought a bunch of tickets to the U.S. Open instead. During Thursday evening’s women’s semifinals, I watched Serena Williams come back from a break down in the first set to decisively win her match against Anastasija Sevastova. Naomi Osaka then played a flawless match against American Madison Keys, even with the crowd cheering against her. Osaka pulled off an awe-inspiring feat, saving 13 break points to ensure her place in the Grand Slam championship — her very first.
The stage was set for a history-making match: Williams, a living legend, on one side of the net, going for her twenty-fourth Grand Slam title to tie Margaret Court’s career record a year after giving birth. On the other side was 20-year-old Osaka, the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final who was poised to be the first Japanese tennis player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam championship. To witness this, I sold my seat in the nosebleeds and spent way too much money to sit just a little bit closer in the middle section.
The match was going to be close not only because both women played incredibly throughout this year’s tournament, but because Serena is Serena, a proven champion, and Naomi was being coached by Sascha Bajin, Serena’s former hitting partner, who was once described as “Serena Williams’s Secret Weapon.” Naomi had already beaten Serena once during the Miami Open, but that was when Serena had just returned to tennis after her maternity leave, and Serena was now back in full form. I was prepared for Serena Williams, the GOAT, to win the title. I was also prepared for Naomi Osaka, the half Japanese-half Haitian phenom, to win her first championship. I was prepared to witness a passing of the torch of sorts, because even legends like Serena retire eventually, and Naomi is leading a new generation into the future of the sport.
What I wasn’t prepared for was to witness a match that broke my heart. I wasn’t prepared to witness chair umpire Carlos Ramos’ unreasonable treatment of Serena Williams (and I’ve seen enough matches in my lifetime and watched men scream at umpires without receiving such penalties to know that this was unreasonable). I wasn’t prepared to be part of crowd that booed and booed as both players stood on a stage with tears streaming down their faces. I wasn’t prepared for Naomi Osaka to have her big moment — one she rightly deserved with her nearly superhuman tennis playing — diminished by a contentious match. Both of these women deserved better.
Much has been written now about what exactly went down at the U.S. Open women’s finals (see: Rebecca Traister on what rage costs a woman, Sally Jenkins on Ramos’s power play, or Ben Rothenberg with a historical approach to the events). The media and fans have focused on how Serena was treated, and I’m sure there will be many more takes in the days to come.
But I want to give this moment back to Naomi Osaka, who deserves her win and every penny of the $3.8 million prize money. She deserves our attention. Read this profile of Naomi by Louisa Thomas from Racquet magazine’s second issue.
“She has some of the purest raw power in the game, a serve that she can use to dictate points and a whipping forehand swing that generates phenomenal racket head speed,” Thomas writes. “Even as a 16-year-old, she’d clocked forehands at over a hundred miles an hour.”
And then read this story by the Times’s Motoko Rich on how Naomi’s victory is pushing Japan to redefine what it means to be Japanese.
In becoming the first Japanese-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam championship, Ms. Osaka, 20, is helping to challenge Japan’s longstanding sense of racial purity and cultural identity.
Her emergence comes at a time when Japan is also grappling with a declining population, a looming demographic crisis that has prompted the country to open its doors slightly to accommodate an increase in foreign residents and descendants of Japanese immigrants who want to return to Japan.
And here’s Brooke Larmer, in the New York Times Magazine:
Living on the hyphen — balancing Japanese, American and Haitian cultures — is something Osaka has done all her life. And she has become aware that her mixed identity may bring her more fans around the world. “Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am,” she has said, “so it’s like anybody can cheer for me.” In Japan, sports fans already know who Osaka is: She’s the rising star playing for the land of the rising sun.
Naomi Osaka deserves to have her moment.