When the trophy presentation after the U.S. Open women’s final was announced, the crowd booed. It was an ugly sound, filling Arthur Ashe Stadium, ricocheting off the closed roof. The champion, Naomi Osaka, tugged her visor over her eyes and cried.
It had been her dream to play Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open, and her dream to win. The Williams sisters were the reason that she started playing tennis in the first place: her father, Leonard Francois, a Haitian who had moved to Japan, where he met Osaka’s mother, had watched them during a broadcast of the 1999 French Open and decided to follow in the footsteps of Richard Williams and turn his toddler daughters into tennis prodigies. Naomi’s game, too, was developed in the style of Serena’s: she had a serve that could tickle a hundred and twenty miles per hour, and a blistering forehand. Recently, she hired Williams’s former longtime hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, as her coach. Bajin has said that he can see some of Williams in her—not only in the heaviness of her groundstrokes but in her relish for the big stage.
Together, Osaka and Bajin worked on her backhand, changing the shape of her stroke to give the ball more arc. They developed her footwork, expanding her range and allowing her to put her weight behind every shot. They focussed on her serve so that she could better disguise it. And they emphasized the mental aspects of the game, figuring out how to put her in the best frame of mind. In a short time, her game noticeably improved. No longer reliant on the first strike, she could also defend. She could settle into a rally, work it, and then end it. She could weather swings of momentum. She could handle—even feed on—pressure. Williams was the model, the idol, the measure. But Osaka was that rarest of things: a worthy young challenger.
She was ready, and she knew it. You could see it in the steely look she gave Williams when they met at the net before the match began. And Williams knew it, too, or learned it quickly. Osaka’s service returns were coming back at Williams’s feet, not giving her time to recover, nor letting her exploit an angle. Williams started to press. She had been making nearly eighty per cent of her first serves in this U.S. Open; against Osaka, she made a little more than half of them. She started double-faulting. Osaka’s own serve, meanwhile, was humming. And, as has been true all throughout the tournament, her serve was perhaps most dangerous in the toughest situations. She saved four of five break points while winning five of six break points on Williams’s serve. Off the ground, too, she was outplaying Williams, moving better while matching her for pace, angles, and depth. In almost every statistical category, Osaka had the edge. Osaka took the first set, 6–2. Coming into the match, she was 31–0 after winning the first set this year. Still, no one doubted that Williams had the capacity to turn things around.
Everyone, including Osaka, knew there was a chance of a comeback. Osaka may have even welcomed it. Like everyone else in that stadium, she wanted to see Williams at her best. It wasn’t her dream to defeat a depleted Williams, she has said more than once. She wanted to spark Williams’s fire, to battle the most dominant player tennis has ever seen.
The match had been a dream of Williams’s, too. A year earlier, she had been in the hospital, facing life-threatening complications after the birth of her daughter. She had committed herself to returning to the top, and now she was close. In the semifinal, against Anastasija Sevastova, she had played an almost tactically perfect match, taking away Sevastova’s brilliant drop shot and canny spins by closing in on the net, again and again. She seemed to have reached that special gear that only she has—and she had not elevated herself by some internal explosion, as in the past, but with an astonishing level of poise. She struck me as unusually serene.
In the first set against Osaka, on the other hand, she seemed nervous. But the level of her game was rising as the match progressed. She had suffered slow starts in the previous two rounds, probing her opponents and then adjusting her tactics as she identified their weak spots. That would be far more difficult against Osaka, who was not showing any weaknesses, but Williams had done the impossible before.
One possibility was coming into the net, where Williams excelled. In her box, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, moved his hands slightly forward, signalling as much. The umpire, Carlos Ramos, spotted him and issued a violation. Coaches constantly signal to their players, Mouratoglou later argued, and he was right. It is an infraction that is, at best, inconsistently enforced.
Williams’s response when she realized that she had received a violation—the first only counts as an official warning—was telling. Clearly agitated, she controlled her temper. She was insistent but polite. She could see why he thought it was coaching, she told Ramos, but it was not. “I don’t cheat to win,” she said, breathless but emphatic. “I’d rather lose.” That was her complaint: more than anything, she felt her integrity had been impugned. She did not seem to realize, nor did the umpire tell her, that her coach, not she, was at fault—that she bore the consequence but not the blame.
A racquet smash followed—a second violation, and so a point penalty by the books. And then came the fuming. She wanted an apology. She couldn’t let it go. Williams is a player who can use anger as competitive fuel when she believes that she has been done wrong. It is true that Ramos could not do what she was demanding, which was to reverse his warning: warnings can’t be reversed, and, anyway, it was a violation, whether Williams read the signal or not. It is also true that Williams has been held to different standards throughout her career, criticized for her brashness, her body, her competitive drive—for being, when it comes down to it, unafraid to claim her own success.
Williams has repeatedly been subjected to patently racist and sexist criticism. Just this month, the French Open announced a dress code, and officials held up Williams’s tight catsuit as an example of an outfit that had gone “too far.” No matter that she says she wore the compression outfit for therapeutic purposes (she has a history of blood clots), or that it actually offered more coverage than your typical skimpy tennis dress. “One must respect the game and the place,” the president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, said. The implication was clear: Williams was disrespectful, and needed to be put in her place.
It wasn’t surprising to me, then, that Williams felt that her character was being questioned, that the violation sounded different to her than it might have to another player. (Plenty of top players, including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have received coaching violations.) Finally, she called Ramos a “thief” for docking her a point. He responded by giving her a third penalty, and thus docking her a game. In doing so, he put victory more or less out of reach.
By the books, a player can receive a penalty for making derogatory comments or accusing an official of dishonesty—and those penalties do happen, probably more than people realize. But they are rarely given in such tense, high-stakes moments, and there are many prominent examples of people—almost all of them white men—who have said far worse. Jimmy Connors once called an umpire “an abortion.” At the French Open earlier this year, Rafael Nadal lit into Ramos after a time-delay warning, and declared that the umpire would never again officiate one of his matches. He was not penalized for his comments. “Don’t fucking talk to me,” Roger Federer told the chair umpire during the 2009 U.S. Open men’s final, and cursed at him multiple times. With the standard that Ramos applied in penalizing Williams a game, it’s hard to imagine that John McEnroe would have ever completed a match.
“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality, and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams said after the match. “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.’ ” It’s impossible to prove, of course, that he wouldn’t do so. As Larry Brown noted after the match, Ramos has a history of controversial, nitpicky calls, made against both men and women. But what he did to Williams, and inadvertently to Osaka, was unlike anything I’d seen in a tennis match before.
When the match was over, and the boos swelled, Williams put her arm around Osaka and tried to comfort her. Then she quieted the crowd down, imploring fans to remember that it was Osaka’s moment. Later, she explained, “I felt, like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam.’ I was, like, ‘Wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.’ ” By then, I was in tears, too. I have seen a lot of remarkable things from Williams over the years, but that simple demonstration of empathy, at once heartbreaking and inspiring, impressed me as much as any of the victories she has won in her long, incredible career.
When it was Osaka’s turn to receive her trophy, she apologized for disappointing the crowd, breaking my heart again. Afterward, she was asked why she had done that. “Your question is making me emotional,” she answered, tearing up. “O.K. Because I know that, like, she really wanted to have the twenty-fourth Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. Like, 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 . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she began to cry.
“Anyway,” she added, “when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”