By Mike McIntyre
Naomi Osaka became the first tennis player from Japan to win a Grand Slam title on Sunday at the US Open with a decisive 6-2, 6-4 victory over Serena Williams. It was not the way the 20 year old Osaka envisioned defeating her idol however as a sideshow developed between the 23 time major champion and chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
After a clean first set of tennis from Osaka and an error-filled one from Williams, things took a turn for the worse in the early stages of the second set. Ramos gave Williams a warning for coaching due to hand signals that Patrick Mouratoglou was making from the stands. Williams seemed stung by the accusation as if it somehow implied that she was looking for an advantage to get back into the match. She explained to Ramos that she understood how he might have implied there was coaching going on but that, "I don't cheat to win, I'd rather lose."
Regardless of whether or not Williams even saw the hand signal from her coach, the umpire is within his or her right to impose such a warning. The onus in this case to remain impartial and detached is really on Mouratoglou, although as he mentioned after the match, "100% of the coaches, in 100% of the matches" employ similar tactics. For a player like Serena Williams however, who never uses on-court coaching even when it is permitted at regular WTA events, the insinuation from Ramos clearly struck a nerve.
The exchange seemed to in-fact fire the American up as she would break to take a 3-1 lead in the second frame. Quickly however, Osaka broke right back to put the match back on-serve and after the fifth game ended Williams threw her racquet to the court in frustration. That enacted an automatic point penalty which meant that Osaka would start her next service game ahead 15-0. This was unclear to Williams until she got-up after the change-over and made her way to receive serve. It all started to unravel from this point onwards as a visibly shaken Williams asked Ramos for an apology.
It seemed as though Williams was under the impression that the previous warning for coaching was reconciled between her and the umpire at an earlier juncture of the match and that perhaps she believed it did not actually count in the progressive discipline she was now receiving. Ramos stuck to his guns (as he was entitled to do) and the match continued.
Skip ahead to the next changeover where Williams was still understandably seething from a combination of unfortunate events and continued strong play from her opponent, and things got uncomfortable very quickly. As she was getting up to receive serve with Osaka leading 4-3, Williams said to Ramos "You're a thief" for taking the point deduction from her two games prior. Without hesitation or reflection, Ramos then (again as he was entitled to do) decided to call her for verbal abuse. Due to the existing warning/code violation combo she had already received, the third strike against her resulted in the automatic forfeit of an entire game. Williams would now have to serve to stay in the match, down 3-5.
This is the point of the match where in my estimation the chair umpire should have used better judgement. He did not have to call Williams for verbal abuse at such a critical juncture of a Grand Slam final. She did not use any obscenities in her comments to him and was understandably rattled with the way things were proceeding both between herself and the umpire as well as herself and her opponent. To make a parallel to another professional sport, in the NHL referees officiate playoff games differently than they would a (relatively) meaningless regular season game despite the fact that the rules are the same in either setting. They are known to "put their whistles away" in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The US Open final is the equivalent to game 7 overtime in hockey, and yet Ramos decided to enforce the rules exactly as they appear in the book. Instead of finding a way to diffuse the situation, Ramos essentially lit the match that would trigger an explosive reaction from Williams.
Tournament referee Brian Earley and WTA Supervisor Donna Kelso both came onto the court to try to better understand the situation but after speaking with Ramos and listening to Williams plead her case, they walked-away saying effectively that their hands were tied and it was the chair umpire's decision to make.
Osaka then somehow managed to block-out the distraction and focus on her tennis - which she has done so well over the past two weeks - and closed-out the second set 6-4 to claim her first major title. The young phenom was moved to tears as she hugged her mother, coach and other family and friends in her players box after the victory and was again seen crying while having to deal with a chorus of boos that reigned down during the post-match trophy ceremony. Serena Williams' fans felt their star was robbed of the opportunity to end the match on her own terms.
Regardless of how you feel Williams reacted during the match, she showed enormous class to quickly take control of that awkward moment and address the crowd pleading for them to allow Osaka to enjoy her well-earned triumph. Osaka is a rising star on the WTA Tour who earlier this year won her first professional tournament in Indian Wells, defeated Williams in the next event in Miami and has now proved that result to be no fluke.
For Williams, a $17,000 fine was levied against her the day after the final for her behavior on court. While there are still tournaments that remain before the end of the tennis season, the American tennis legend will now have to wait until January at the Australian Open to try to capture her 24th Grand Slam and try to tie the all-time record held my Margaret Court. That quest is the driving factor that keeps Serena Williams going as she approaches her 37th birthday later this month. Given the controversy and drama that we witnessed in her last match at Flushing Meadows I'm sure it will only serve to provide Williams even more motivation to make that a reality.