Naomi Osaka stayed above the fray to claim first Grand Slam title


Naomi Osaka of Japan attends a press conference after beating Serena Williams of the United States at the U.S. Open final in New York on Sept. 8, 2018. Kyodo News photo

Naomi Osaka of Japan attends a press conference after beating Serena Williams of the United States at the U.S. Open final in New York on Sept. 8, 2018. Kyodo News photo

NEW YORK  — As Serena Williams’ U.S. Open final crumbled around her on Sept. 8, Japan’s Naomi Osaka said she had to stay above the fray in order to keep her historic run to Grand Slam history alive.

With code violations, broken rackets, tears and accusations of cheating coming from Williams’ end of the court, Osaka said she knew that staying focused was key to ensuring she took advantage of the opportunity that had come her way.

“The crowd was really noisy. I really didn’t hear anything that was going on,” said Osaka when asked about the penalty that cost Williams a crucial game midway through the second set.

“When I turned around it was 5-3, so I was a little confused, but for me, I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she is such a great champion and I know that she can come back from any point,” Osaka said.

“I was just trying to focus on myself at that point.”

Not only was Osaka dealing with the emotions that come from playing in her first Grand Slam final as a 20-year-old, she was doing so against a woman who is both her idol and widely considered the greatest female player of all time.

Those two facts left Osaka fighting an unusual emotional conflict, she said, as the tribulations of her hero seemingly worked in her favor.

“It was kind of difficult because I was really concerned about her, like, the inner fan in me jumped out, so I really had to push to keep a straight face,” said Osaka, who was born 11 days before Serena played her first match on tour, according to Gracenote Sports. “It feels very emotional … I feel a bit happy and sad at the same time. I think this is the most I have ever cried.”

Osaka’s battle for composure was made even more complicated because there were two pieces of history on the line.

Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father but represents Japan on the WTA tour, was battling to become the first person from her country to win a singles Grand Slam title.

For Williams, a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam title was on offer.

“I know that she really wants to have the 24th Grand Slam, everyone knows this, it is on the commercials, it’s everywhere,” said Osaka while fighting back tears in the post-match press conference.

“When I step on the court, I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan, I am just a tennis player playing another tennis player. (But) when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”

But with controversy and recriminations swirling, Williams, a six-time U.S. Open champion, tried to make sure Osaka’s moment was not completely ruined.

First, she comforted her on the podium as the partisan Flushing Meadows crowd rained boos down from the stands, leaving the Japanese in tears, and then by heaping praise on her later.

“She played an amazing match,” Williams said. “She deserved credit, she deserved to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it was.”

And the history books will bear that out.

Osaka hit 16 winners against 14 unforced errors, finished with a 73 percent first serve rate and won 37 of 57 points when starting the point. She was only broken once but took four of the five break opportunities Williams offered.

Osaka only dropped one set in the whole tournament — against Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round — and knocked out a player who she had not beaten in three tries when she topped world No. 14 Madison Keys in the semifinal.

Despite her newfound status of Grand Slam winner, the relative ease of the win that got her there and the controversy that engulfed Williams during and after the match, Osaka said her opinion towards her idol has not changed. “I don’t know what happened on the court, so for me, I am always going to remember the Serena I love and it does not change anything for me. She was really nice to me at the net and on the podium, so I don’t really see what would change.”

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