Naomi Osaka beats the boos and begins long road to tennis icon status | Paul MacInnes

The US Open winner has the tools to win repeatedly but Serena Williams’s example shows the hurdles that may lie in her way

You can have different views about the merits of booing at a sporting event. For some it is one of the few tools available to make your displeasure known: you’ve paid the money, you have the choice to moan like a disgruntled cow should you wish. For others, a group that may be classified as “decent human beings”, it is a bit mean-spirited and should be saved for when you come across David Cameron in the street.

Another thing about booing is that it is indiscriminate. However clear a motivation may be in the mind of the boo-er, by the time the noise has spread across an stadium all nuance is lost. You are left with an aural thump that might land squarely on the jaw of someone who in no way deserves it.

This brings us to Naomi Osaka. The 20-year-old tennis player won her first major title in New York on Saturday night. She did so by beating her idol in the sport, Serena Williams. Unfortunately for the Japanese player, however, not only was her moment of outstanding achievement obscured by controversy but the young woman had to stand in the middle of the Arthur Ashe stadium and wait to collect her trophy amid a cloud of jeers.

Enough has been written about the exchanges between Serena Williams and the umpire, Carlos Ramos, that overshadowed the US Open women’s final. It is likely that the irate crowd were booing because of his actions and not because their favourite, Serena, had lost. Even less likely was the possibility that they were booing Osaka, the Japanese national of multiracial heritage who has been largely raised in the US. But it was impossible to tell. The booing went on from the moment the final had finished and reached a climax at the presentation.

It was at this point that Williams interceded. Speaking directly to the crowd and, quite rightly, assuming it to consist almost entirely of her support, she said: “Let’s make this the best moment we can. We’ll get through it but let’s give credit where credit is due and let’s not boo any more.”

And so the booing stopped. And Osaka, who had been forced to hide tears underneath one of those visors worn only by tennis stars and poker dealers, was able to raise the US Open trophy.

Osaka had deserved more respect than that which she was afforded and she certainly deserved her triumph. A 20-year-old against a 37-year-old who gave birth eight months previously should not be a fair fight. But this was Serena. Williams had dropped only a solitary set en route to the final, a 24th major had appeared to be her destiny (certainly, the crowd appeared to think so).

Her opponent set about dismantling this narrative from the off. The force of her groundstrokes consistently forced Williams back (and who does that?). Her serving was relentless. With 73% of first serves in, her power and placement hardly flickered. She covered more ground and hit more winners than the great champion. The final game of the match was a blitz and conjured that rarest of sentiments: you felt sorry for Serena.

The most impressive aspect of Osaka’s play was her mentality. This was her first major final and a match-up whose possibility had inspired her as a kid. She could have just walked on the court and achieved a lifetime ambition. Yet from the first point she determined to do better than that and did not let go until the prize was hers.

“It was always my dream to play Serena in the US Open finals and I was really grateful I was able to do that. Thank you,” said Osaka eventually, as she stood on that podium. “I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

It should not have had to end as it did but the question now arises of whether Osaka’s victory will be a kind of beginning. Serena has dominated women’s tennis for the past 15 years. During that time only the Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have truly threatened her supremacy and they had to do it in tandem.

If the wind is in her favour, Osaka has the tools to win and win again. It is possible for her to become the next big icon in the sport. That would make her the second in succession to be a woman of colour. This fact begs another question: will Osaka have to leap the same hurdles as Williams before her?

Serena has been both defended and criticised in great volume for her ding-dong with Ramos, and even those who are supportive have questioned whether Williams should have lost her temper. But it seems fair to suggest that no one can know quite how much their levels of irascibility might be affected by a lifetime in a sport that is largely unknown to people of their race and background. It hardly seems outrageous to suggest it might wind you right up.

Perhaps that is a fate Osaka would not have to endure, that she would be able, in fact, to stride through the holes in tennis’s musty traditions that Serena was forced to knock through. By all accounts Osaka is an easygoing character, fond of jokes and self-deprecation. She is certainly a player of great ability and determination. It would be nice, were Osaka to become tennis’s second great champion of colour, that she were afforded the privilege of being allowed to be herself.


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dream date: Naomi Osaka v Serena Williams set to be intriguing final
Young Japanese who has shown innocence and daring before her first slam final faces American powerhouse who inspired her to play the game in the first place

Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows

07, Sep, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Naomi Osaka beats Serena Williams to win US Open women's final – as it happened
Game-by-game report: Naomi Osaka won her first grand slam title amid controversy in New York as Serena Williams railed at the umpire

Bryan Armen Graham at Flushing Meadows

08, Sep, 2018 @11:14 PM

Article image
Serena Williams burns the house down as Naomi Osaka's brilliance is forgotten
The American legend was the victim of a draconian enforcement of the rules in the US Open final. But her reaction exposed the one flaw in her game

Bryan Armen Graham at Flushing Meadows

09, Sep, 2018 @12:28 PM

Article image
Serena Williams’s meltdown is a sign that tennis lies at a crossroads | Kevin Mitchell
In the wake of Serena Williams’s meltdown in the US Open final the top players must take responsibility for guiding tennis through good times and bad during a period of change

Kevin Mitchell

10, Sep, 2018 @5:23 PM

Article image
Serena Williams wrote to Naomi Osaka to 'find peace' after US Open final
Serena Williams says she sent an apology to Naomi Osaka for her behavior in last year’s US Open final

Guardian staff and agencies

09, Jul, 2019 @4:07 PM

Article image
Flashpoints of 2018: Serena Williams blows her top in the US Open final
Serena Williams, winner of 23 major singles titles, blamed all and sundry after falling foul of the rules in her losing final with Naomi Osaka at Flushing Meadows

Kevin Mitchell

26, Dec, 2018 @2:43 PM

Article image
Naomi Osaka admits she was 'a little bit sad' as US Open win ended in boos
The new US Open champion has spoken about the mixed emotions she felt after winning her first grand slam in a match overshadowed by controversy

Guardian sport

10, Sep, 2018 @2:48 PM

Article image
Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori reach US Open semi-finals in contrasting styles
Kei Nishikori beat Marin Cilic 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 while Naomi Osaka ruthlessly dispatched Lesia Tsurenko 6-1, 6-1 in the US Open quarter-finals

Kevin Mitchell Flushing Meadows

05, Sep, 2018 @11:29 PM

Article image
Serena Williams was right about women’s treatment but wrong on Saturday | Kevin Mitchell
Serena Williams has a case when she suggests tennis can treat women poorly but there are countless examples of men being penalised for behaviour like hers in the US Open final

Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows

10, Sep, 2018 @6:45 AM

Article image
Andy Murray downbeat on US Open chances: ‘I don’t think it’s realistic’
The US Open holds glorious memories for Andy Murray but, at 378 in the world as he grinds his way back from hip surgery, he believes this year’s title is out of reach

Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows

24, Aug, 2018 @6:28 PM