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Serena Williams' quest to make history is put on hold, but Naomi Osaka's historic win deserves to be celebrated

Serena Williams' quest to make history is put on hold, but Naomi Osaka's historic win deserves to be celebrated
Naomi Osaka of Japan holds the trophy after defeating Serena Williams in the women's final of the U.S. Open. (Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

Serena Williams’ quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title ended on Saturday at the U.S. Open with a flood of tears, accusations of sexist treatment, a smashed racket and a firm if misplaced conviction the chair umpire was “a thief” who unjustly took a point from her.

Unfairly overshadowed in the chaos of Williams telling umpire Carlos Ramos, “You will never, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live,” and crying as she railed against having been penalized a point and a game, was the poised performance of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, whose 6-2, 6-4 victory capped an outstanding two weeks and gave her the distinction of being the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam championship.

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Standing atop the podium for the trophy presentation, jeers raining down on her from nearly every corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka cried and apologized for beating the crowd favorite. Williams, who had created a powerful connection with fans during her remarkable comeback after giving birth and enduring serious postpartum complications just over a year ago, had the the grace to ask the boo-birds to stop. She also put an arm around Osaka’s shoulder.

“I know that, like, she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere,” said Osaka, who in third grade produced a report on Williams as the person Osaka most wanted to be like. “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,” she said, pausing while her eyes welled up, “I felt like a little kid again.”

The commotion began when Ramos assessed a code violation against Williams for getting coaching during the second game of the second set. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, moved his hands as if telling her to move up toward the net, and he later acknowledged he was coaching but said every coach does it. Williams said she didn’t see his gesture and, in any case, “We don’t have signals.” After Ramos made the announcement Williams approached him and angrily told him, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.”

Williams couldn’t let go. Buoyed by the crowd, she broke Osaka’s serve to take a 3-1 lead but Osaka broke back to cut Williams’ lead to 3-2. Williams, 36, smashed her racket, a second code violation and automatic point penalty assessed at the start of the sixth game. She again berated Ramos. “I have never cheated in my life. You owe me an apology,” Williams said. “I have a daughter and I stand up for what’s right.”

During the changeover after Osaka broke Williams’ serve again to take a 4-3 lead, Ramos assessed a third code violation for verbal abuse and penalized Williams a game. Williams, incensed, unsuccessfully pleaded her case with the tournament referee and Grand Slam supervisor and invoked incidents here in 2004 and 2009 in which she had felt wronged by the officials. “Because I’m a woman you’re going to take this away from me?” she said. Ramos did not comment afterward because umpires are not allowed to speak with the media. Tournament officials said in a statement the chair umpire’s decision was final and not reviewable.

“I’ve seen other men call umpires several things,” Williams said. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. 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 know if that’s true. Players of both genders curse on the court, usually at themselves. Williams’ calling Ramos a thief was a direct challenge to his integrity. He could have turned a deaf ear to her continued abuse before penalizing her the game that gave Osaka a 5-3 lead, but he was within his rights. As a 31-time Grand Slam finalist — 30 more than Osaka — Williams should have been able to control her emotions as calmly as Osaka did.

Williams should have done many things as well as Osaka, who had six aces and again proved herself a big-match player by converting four of five break points and ignoring the fuss mushrooming around her. “I felt like she played really well,” Williams said. “She made a lot of shots. She was so focused. Whenever I had a break point she came up with some great serve. Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match.”

Intent on living out her childhood dream of beating Williams here, Osaka said she didn’t know what Williams was doing or saying. It’s a shame Osaka’s impressive triumph was accompanied by Williams’ sour notes, but Williams remains on the pedestal on which Osaka placed her long ago. “I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love,” Osaka said. “It doesn’t change anything for me.”

Osaka’s character and talent shone throughout a grueling tournament. Williams didn’t make history Saturday but Osaka did, and that’s a happy ending.

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