NEW YORK – The reverberations of an unfortunate and most dramatic Saturday night at the US Open will last well into the beyond.
But it’s important not to relegate the most important to the inside pages.
Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old who was born in Japan, raised on Long Island and tennis-educated in South Florida, is the US Open women’s singles champion.
And she soundly defeated Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and her childhood idol, to win it.
There was so much more. But that’s for another space.
Osaka played and competed in her first major final as though she had her omnipresent ear buds still in her ears. Somehow, she was able to completely shut out the loud crowd noise under the roof – and the major distractions emanating from the other side.
She played as though it wasn’t a big occasion – the biggest of her career. She played as though the greatest female player of all time wasn’t across the net.
Poised, confident, flawless
It was a remarkably poised, confident performance at the end of an impressive fortnight. And along with the trophy and the huge check, it will catapult Osaka into the top 10.
“I mean, it doesn’t really feel that real right now. I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done,” Osaka said during the general press conference that was the last stop on an extensive media tour after the victory.
“Right now it just feels, like, I don’t know. Aside from the fact there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament,” she added.
“I feel like she was really, really consistent. I think her game is always super consistent. And I felt like she played really well. Like I said, she made a lot of shots. She was so focused. I think, you know, whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve,” Williams said. ” Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match. I hope to learn a lot from that.”
No. 20 seed last one standing
It was a women’s tournament full of early casualties. In the very first match on the very first day, the official opener on Louis Armstrong stadium, No. 1 seed Simona Halep was beaten in straight sets by Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.
Osaka was quietly going about her business on the Grandstand and out on Court 17. She lost just seven games through her first three rounds. And then, she was under the radar no more. Osaka survived a tough one against another 20-year-old, Aryna Sabalenka, who was the form player coming in. And after she dismissed 2017 finalist Madison Keys in such impressive fashion in the semifinals, there was room to hope she could handle Williams’s power well enough to at least make it an entertaining final.
She did so much more than that. If it felt, before it happened, that it was mostly up to Williams, it ended up being primarily up to Osaka. Which must have been a serious shock to Williams.
Osaka served beautifully. She handled Williams’s second serve well. Crucially, she handled the important points well. She did everything well – especially finding a way to shut out all the noise.
“I think I was able to do that because it was my first Grand Slam final. I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” said Osaka. “So, yeah, I just thought, like, no matter what happens outside of the court, for me, when I step on the court, it’s just about tennis.”
Coach Sascha Bajin said during the ESPN broadcast that his charge was extremely nervous. But although we still know little about what makes Osaka tick, we do know this: the nerves, the fatalistic thoughts that she may not play well, are such an integral part of her being as a competitive tennis player, she may not even let them faze her even on this big night.
Osaka’s reaction on court after one last error from Williams, when she had won the title, was to slide her visor down over her face.
She was greeted at the net by a big smile and a big hug from Williams who, to her credit, did her utmost in the aftermath of all the drama to at least try to ensure that Osaka’s first Grand Slam win would be a good memory.
“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying. You know, she just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment,” Williams said. “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.’ “
There were plenty of emotions on that court in the aftermath from both women. Osaka said she was trying to process it all, and couldn’t attribute them to winning, to feeling sad for her idol losing as she chased history, to all the drama, or to what the triumph might mean to both her career, and to her entire family.
“I just feel like I had a lot of emotions, so I had to kind of categorize what was which emotion,” she said.
Oblivious to the magnitude
Few have ever been in Osaka’s situation – never mind at that age. So it’s impossible to even fathom how this introverted, remarkably childlike young lady could take it all in and handle it. She just did.
Maybe a few days from now, it will all hit her. Her innocence and insouciance is probably making the enormity of it only a theory, for now.
When she goes back and looks at the video – if she does – she’ll see all the drama that went on around her. It was drama she insisted she really didn’t hear, partly because of the noise of the crowd and also because of her own determination to stay on her own side of the court.
Maybe she won’t even grasp what an impressive feat it was until she gets into that position again and has something to compare it with. And there’s no reason to think she won’t.
At this point, Osaka may not even grasp how incredibly difficult it is to do what she did. She just did it. It’s just something she did. No biggie.
The most emotional moment may well have been just before she hugged her lookalike mother Tanaki after she made her way up to see her friends and family.
Mom, by all accounts far more outgoing and expressive than her daughter, tried to stay composed. But as she neared her daughter – when she first made eye contact with her – she just dissolved into tears. (She wasn’t the only one).
A coach-player relationship that worked
The talented young player with great power that had yet to be harnessed has blossomed, with the help of an inexperienced coach who turned out to be the perfect choice. The raw ore morphed into a polished product capable of performing that way on the biggest stage.
There is so much more to come for Osaka. Not all of it will be good. A lot of it will seem like too much. The expectations that weren’t there before will now be laid upon her strong shoulders. Everyone in Japan is going to want a piece of her.
And, as it happens, Tokyo is her next WTA Tour stop.
So there will never be a moment this pure, this innocent. You hope she can, in her own iconoclastic way, find a way to enjoy it to the fullest before the avalanche hits.
(Screenshots from ESPN/TSN)