Poor Naomi Osaka. Since she was a child, she had dreamed of beating Serena Williams to win the US Open and now, as that dream was coming true, 23,000 New Yorkers were booing. They booed the umpire Carlos Ramos, they booed the television presenter trying to host the trophy ceremony, they booed anything that moved. And the more they booed, the more Osaka sobbed.
The 20-year-old grand slam final debutante had just played the match of her life to beat Williams 6-2, 6-4. She held her nerve, served well, thumped her forehand and had done to Williams what Williams usually does to everyone else. She was composed, powerful and in charge of the final.
It was not that the crowd disliked Osaka – it is impossible not to like the softly-spoken, gentle soul who always looks mildly surprised by all the fuss made of her remarkable talents. But the partisan throng packed into the Arthur Ashe stadium could not accept that their champion, Williams, had just thrown away her chance to a 24th grand slam title.
Williams played poorly from the start. She could not land her first serve and could do nothing as Osaka pounced on her every weakness. And then she took on Ramos and the rule book. And she lost. She imploded as Ramos penalised her for three separate offences against the code of conduct which resulted in her being docked a game in the second set.
Throughout all of this, Osaka quietly got on with the business of winning.
Although she grew up idolising Williams, Osaka managed to focus entirely on herself throughout the final. There were nerves in the warm-up but once Ramos called “play”, she looked at the ball and stuck to her game plan. The legend on the other side of the net disappeared to be replaced by A.N. Other – and to be able to do that in her first major final, aged 20, was truly impressive.
As Williams ranted at the umpire and called for the tournament referee, Brian Earley, and the grand slam supervisor, Donna Kelso, to come and sort out the mess she had created for herself, Osaka did not waver. She claims not to have heard or seen what was going on; she was simply focused on the match. But once it was over, Osaka was inconsolable. This was her big moment but it was not playing out as she expected.
To be fair to Williams, she did everything she could to make Osaka’s first grand slam triumph special. She ran to her after the final point and gave her a huge hug. She tried to jolly her along as they waited for trophy presentation – her anger was not directed at Osaka, only at Ramos – and she pleaded with the crowd to stop booing. To be fair to the crowd, they gave the new champion a massive ovation when she stepped forward to lift the trophy.
“I know that she really wanted to have the 24th grand slam, right?” Osaka said. “Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. Like, when I step on to 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.”
As the newly-crowned champion, she had seen at first-hand what Williams can be like when she does not get her own way. Yet there was no resentment, no jealousy that her finest moment was being overshadowed by her beaten rival’s fury. She had lived out her dream on court with her heroine and that was all she would remember.
“I don’t know what happened on the court,” Osaka said. “So for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me, like, at the net and on the podium. I don’t really see what would change.”
What has changed is that Osaka is now a grand slam champion, the first ever from Japan. Her next tournament is in Tokyo. If she was surprised by the fuss that surrounded her in New York, she will not know what has hit her when she lands in Japan.