INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Venus and and Serena Williams will never forget why they didn’t come to the BNP Paribas Open for nearly 15 years.
No one is likely to, any time soon.
But now that they made the decision to return – first Serena in 2015, then her sister a year later – it all just seems so … normal.
The sisters met up and chatted on adjoining courts Tuesday, with Venus having already practiced inside Stadium 1.
During perhaps the longest-ever ankle tape job (more than 20 minutes), the sisters gabbed. And then, as Serena went through her paces with hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins, they took another little break later, as Venus headed off to the rest of her day.
The moments when you see the two together at tournaments are fairly rare. They don’t practice together on site much. And while both prefer early-morning practice slots, they often follow each other.
It’s just a reminder about how the very best, most incredible thing about their legacy is their unbreakable bond, their sisterhood.
It’s hard to even fathom having two champions of such stature in the same family. And for them to be competitive when they meet on court, to have one surpass the other, but to have never have et it affect their sisterhood, is a life lesson for all.
Here’s what it looked like.
As you can see, there were people packed into every available spot within even a long-distance view of the sisters.
Enjoy the pics and videos. Who knows how many more times we’ll see it.
Then-CEO Stacey Allaster said the event represented 35-40 percent of the tour’s net operating revenues. And that the deal was worth more than the $14 million US a year it generated during the three-year stint in Istanbul.
The prize money for the first year in 2014 was upped to $6.5 million, as Allaster said it would rise more from there over the length of the deal.
That didn’t really happen, to any significant extent. It was raised to $7 million in 2015 – and remained at that level for the rest of the Singapore stay.
We covered the inaugural event in 2014, which seemed to create a fair amount of engagement in the city and was spectacularly well put on by the organizers.
(The players were: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and, in her career-making 2014 season finale, Genie Bouchard. There was a significant amount of star power for this one, with some of the most high-profile and popular players in recent years).
Here are some of the pics from that year.
Yes, there are a lot of photos of Bouchard. That was the main reason for being there, as the lone Canadian journalist. But there also are photos of the scenes, the other players and the activities.
In the press room:
Genie Bouchard – with Halep, Williams and Ivanovic:
The attendance was impressive – announced at 129,000 for the first year. That was a bit misleading, as the WTA’s report at the time indicates that number was for fans attracted “to the Singapore Sports Hub during the 10 days of tennis, entertainment and business.”
The actual match attendance was put at “more than 93,000” through 14 sessions, including three reserved for the “Rising Stars” event featured the first couple of years. That’s an average of 6,642 per session, with the final being the last of four sellouts, at 9,986 fans.
Attendance numbers well-spun
Attendance for the second edition in 2015 was announced at 130,000, but over 18 sessions. While it was difficult to judge the fullness of the stands with the dark lighting, sources on site indicated that they weren’t nearly as full as the first year.
That’s not unusual, as the first year was impressive. And in any event of this nature, the novelty is more likely than not to wear off by Year 2 in an area of the planet without any sort of established tennis tradition.
For 2016, the WTA Tour didn’t announce any official attendance figure.
In 2017, the WTA announced attendance as 133,000, over only 11 sessions with no legends, and the straight-elimination doubles draw. By those numbers, the event would have had 11 sellouts, plus another 23,000 fans attending the experience. Might be a little … optimistic.
This year, there’s been no number announced although, as we laid out here, there were plenty of good seats available for every session.
WTA CEO Steve Simon, in his season-ending press conference last week, said he expected a record.
“I think that you can see that through this year we will have record attendance again. I believe it will exceed last year’s 133,000 people. You have seen it the first few nights at the event. You have seen it in the evolution of the fans here,” Simon said.
Law of diminishing returns
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Singapore is that a five-year stay helps create, as Allaster said when the venue was announced, financial stability. But in a country without an established tennis fan base – the type of fan base you need to fill an arena for a week or more – it’s a challenge to keep an event growing.
The players who would attract the less-than-diehard tennis fans – notably, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – have not been annual attendees.
Williams played only once in Singapore – the first year in 2014, when she defeated Halep in the final.
Sharapova qualified in 2014 (exiting after the pool stage) and 2015 (undefeated in the round robin, but out in the semifinals to Kvitova). But she hasn’t played since.
The challenge with the new 10-year commitment in Shenzhen, China will be the same – except double.
Shenzhen has double the population base to draw from. And it’s also near several other large population hubs. And it does have somewhat more of a tennis tradition with annual WTA and ATP Tour events held there.
Simon told the New York Times the deal was actually worth in excess of that figure. But that number includes the reported $450 million to be spent on the new indoor arena to be built, which the WTA won’t actually own, “and other real-estate elements”. Simon also said that the share of the WTA’s total revenues generated by the event is now less than that 35-40 per cent figure stated a few years ago by Allaster.
(After the first two years of the five-year deal with beIN, the rights in the U.S. have switched over to the Tennis Channel for 2019).
The new arena in Shenzhen won’t be ready in time for the inaugural edition in 2019.
Farewell Singapore, hello Shenzhen
The main priority, though, is that the WTA be able to create a lasting, significant tennis tradition in new its home.
The WTA couldn’t confirm that the annual WTA stop in Shenzhen, which takes place just two months after the Tour Finals, would survive. So it may have to find another home in Asia (or Australia, for that matter) for a tournament amidst a tricky time within the game.
The ATP Tour is planning a team event beginning in 2020. And that tournament looks to taking place in several venues where there are currently joint WTA/ATP events. Among the possibilities are Perth (where the Hopman Cup is in danger). Also being considered are Brisbane (well-attended by the top WTA players) and Sydney, the week before the Australian Open.
Shenzhen is so far away from North America and Europe that it’s not going to be able to count on hordes of women’s tennis fans making the long, expensive trip. So it’s going to have to find its market around that part of China. That was, of course, also true in Singapore.
There are enough people in the area; that’s for sure. The challenge will be get them to the event, and keep them coming.
But the launch of the 2019 Hopman Cup already has targeted the big day: New Year’s Day 2019.
That’s when Team Switzerland takes on Team USA.
And that means that two of the best of all time, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, will square off on court in mixed doubles.
Those are two pretty big gets for the exhibition event, which could well be in its final edition if the new ATP team event starts up, as planned, in 2020.
So if this is the finale, that’s quite a way to go.
Federer will again team up with Belinda Bencic to defend their 2018 title. Williams will pair with young countryman Frances Tiafoe, making his first appearance.
Young, attractive field
If the field appears, at first glance, to lack a little star power (having those two legends is already enough), tournament director Paul Kilderry did point out that it includes four Grand Slam singles champions (Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza are the others), three top-10 players (Federer, Zverev, Kerber) and eight top-20 players.
Already announced was the new “it” tennis couple from Greece, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari.
From Great Britain, no Andy Murray or Johanna Konta. Instead, they’ll have the duo of Cameron Norrie and Katie Boulte – an impossibly good-looking combo.
With Muguruza will be … David Ferrer. And you thought the 36-year-old, currently ranked No. 147 and playing a Challenger in Monterrey, was done? Apparently not.
You’d have to think, if he’s going all the way Down Under, that Ferrer plans to play one more Australian Open as well. Perhaps that’s why he’s still out there on the Challenger circuit this week, trying to squeeze into the Melbourne main draw.
Barty and Ebden for Australia
Our thinking was that the most glam matchup for the home team would have been the off-field couple, Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic.
It’s always an extra bit of fun when real-life couples play mixed doubles together.
Absent that, they’ve come up with top Aussie woman Ashleigh Barty and 30-year-old Matthew Ebden, who’s ranked fourth in the country behind Kyrgios, young Alex de Minaur and John Millman.
The French team of Lucas Pouille and Alizé Cornet, who won the event in 2014 with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are in the field.
Kerber and Zverev, last year’s finalists, also team up again and have by far the best combined ranking in the field.
Draws already done
To be able to start promoting Serena vs. the Fed, you had to have the round-robin draw done.
And so it is. Looks like Group B is the tougher group. But only one of those tandems can make the final.
Dec. 29 kickoff with the Greeks
The schedule is here. The proceedings kick off with Great Britain vs. Greece on Saturday, Dec. 29 (coming up before you know it).
There is no session on New Year’s Eve evening or on New Year’s Day. The event always has a pretty fantastic New Year’s Eve party – and they definitely have the field to gussy it up. (Remember when Marat Safin showed up after a rough night back home in Moscow, his face all bruised up?)
The USA vs. Switzerland tussle will be New Year’s night.
New this year at the event, it’s free kids’ ticket day for all day sessions.
You hope this isn’t really, truly the last-ever Hopman Cup. The event has been around since 1989, when Czechoslovakia’s (!!!) Helena Sukova and Miloslav Mecir defeated Australia’s (!!) … Hana Mandlikova and Pat Cash in the final.
(Mandlikova’s Aussie citizenship didn’t last nearly as long as the event).
It’s built up a lovely tradition. And the players seem to have a blast playing it. No doubt this year they’ll have a lovely tribute to Lucy Hopman, the wife of the legendary Aussie coach for whom the event is named. Hopman passed away during the US Open, at the age of 98.
A Florida resident, she made it to Perth every year until 2018, when she was 94.
If you wanted to hear from ITF president David Haggerty – the Hopman Cup is under the ITF umbrella – here is his requisite press release quote.
“We are delighted once again to see such a strong entry for the 2019 Mastercard Hopman Cup, the ITF’s mixed team competition, at the start of the new tennis season. The ITF team competitions, which also include Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, give players a special opportunity to represent their countries, one that they value long after their playing days are over,” Haggerty said.
“Hopman Cup also offers fans a unique chance to see some of the game’s biggest names team up to play mixed doubles, which remain some of the most popular matches of the week. I would like to recognize our title sponsor Mastercard, and all the other sponsors and partners who continue to support the Hopman Cup.”
Looks like he got ALL the sponsors covered there. As one does.
The Spanish- (and French-) speaking official from Portugal has chaired many high-profile Davis Cup ties, including Spain vs. Great Britain earlier this year and the Spain-Serbia quarterfinal last year.
Journalist Miguel Seabra, a former umpire and fellow Portuguese who has been Ramos’s friend for decades, wrote in Tribuna Expresso that Ramos received hundreds of messages of support from friends, colleagues, players and former players.
Wisely, he avoided social media, and didn’t walk the streets in New York the next day.
Ramos wouldn’t answer specific questions about the incident, with rules preventing officials from doing so. (It might have been helpful, in this case, to have a pool reporter talk to him Saturday after the match, to at least lend some balance to a very one-sided situation. But it is what it is).
“I’m doing well, considering the circumstances,” he told Seabra. “It’s not a pleasant situation, but there’s no such thing as “à la carte” umpiring.”
Ramos and Adams, reunited
Ramos’s presence in the chair might make it a little uncomfortable for USTA president Adams, who normally would enjoy her camera-friendly front-row seat as she cheers on the American team.
In Adam’s eagerness to stand behind Williams last weekend, she essentially threw the umpire under the bus and all but said he was sexist.
“It’s a give and take on the court, when you’re talking about what’s transparent, or what’s judgment. A judgment call from the umpire. I would say that (Saturday) night it was unfortunate. We have to have consistencies. Because when you look at what the woman – in this case, Serena – is feeling … We watch the guys do this all the time. They’re badgering the umpire on the changeover, and nothing happens,” Adams said, inaccurately.
A private conversation among millions
And then, Adams told interviewers that Williams was not aware of the large microphones on the court. Nor was Williams aware, she said, of the routine practice of showing clips of goings-on during changeovers, after returns from commercial breaks.
“For Serena, she carried on maybe a little further than what she should have. It was on the changeover, she didn’t expect for it to be on camera, or on air at all. And so that was a conversation between she and him that was then publicized, was on air. And then she got penalized for it, in his judgment, of being abuse,” she said.
So, the former longtime WTA Tour doubles player said Williams believed she and the umpire were having a private conversation – in a Grand Slam final, with 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium, microphones all around the cout, and networks broadcasting the match live around the world.
“There’s no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires, and what the women are doing. And I think there has to be some consistency, across the board, at every level of officiating,” Adams said. “I’m all about gender equality. And I think when you look at the situation, is there conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks?We have to treat each other fairly and the same. And I know what Serena did, and her behaviour, was not welcome. It could have been a line where it should have been drawn.
“But when you look at Carlos, or the umpire in this particular situation, it’s a ‘judgment’ (Adams used air quotes) call, to give that last penalty, because she called him a thief. They’ve been called a lot worse.”
When the interviewers questioned her contention that that the code violation had been assessed merely because Williams called Ramos a “thief”, Adams did admit that Ramos “took a lot.”
“It’s a situation for him to say, ‘Hey, we’re getting out of hand here, let’s tone it down, or I’m going to have to … I think it would have (defused the situation). I think it’s a bond that they have in the communication, the way they communicate, and maybe not understanding that they can have that same conversation with the women. Because they have it with the guys all the time.”
Adams a two-term president
Adams, who turned 50 a few weeks ago, reached a high ranking in singles of No. 67 as a player. She was a top-10 doubles player who reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1989. And then, she accepted a job as a USTA national coach, and retired.
She has a lot of titles: President and CEO of the USTA. Chairperson of the US Open. Chairperson of the U.S. Fed Cup team. Executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program. Chairperson of the ITF’s Fed Cup committee. Board of directors member for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Vice-president of the International Tennis Federation (one of three under president David Haggerty).
She also chairs the ITF’s new “Women in Sports” committee and the ITF’s Joint Media Commission.
Adams was a USTA vice-president in 2011-12, and a director-at-large on the organization’s board of directors from 2005-2010.
In January, 2015, Adams became the first former player, first African-American and the youngest person ever to become the president of the USTA. She succeeded Haggerty, who went on to the big job with the ITF.
Two years later, she was re-elected to an unprecedented second term. That term ends at the end of 2018.
It will be interesting to see what her next move is, and how the accomplished Adams manages the criticism she has received for her impassioned but factually flawed defence of her friend Williams.
First up, of course, the very good chance that she will come face to face with Ramos this weekend in Croatia.
NEW YORK – The gap between social media and real life was glaringly evident Saturday night, when Serena Williams essentially bombed out of the US Open final against neophyte Naomi Osaka.
The virtual truth, as always, was cut and dried on one side or another.
The truth, as always, had multiple shades of gray.
If you’re a Serena fan, you defended her to the death. If you don’t like her – and she’s one of the most polarizing figures in sport in part because she’s one of the most famous and accomplished, while being a strong African-American woman – you slammed her unapologetically.
Williams lost her cool and couldn’t regain it in the heat of the moment. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos, whose track record shows he’s one of the few not reluctant to apply the rules of tennis as they should be applied, did his job.
They were two intractable forces that, when they collided in a major final, led to what happened Saturday night.
It may not have been the most unpleasant finish to a Grand Slam final (Williams owns that one, too, against Kim Clijsters back in 2009). But it was up there.
“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
What set Williams off, and what she never fully recovered from, was the coaching violation called against her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, early in the second set.
It was only the first step of the penalty process: a warning.
But it struck a nerve with Williams. And given her history, you can completely understand where she was coming from.
Throughout her brilliant career, Williams has always been dogged by suggestions that she “cheated”. Her detractors want to think that because she’s a strong, fabulous, muscular female, she must be getting there by artificial means. And yet, Williams is tested often, and has never come up positive. Over 20 years. But the campaign persists.
She is also one of the few women not to avail themselves of the on-court coaching option available during regular WTA Tour events.
But in the heat of the moment, Williams made an illogical leap. As far as we know, she’d never been called for Mouratoglou sending along signals before. Which doesn’t mean it’s never happened. All the coaches do it – Mouratoglou included. And he admitted during a live interview shortly afterwards that he had. He knows that there’s a camera on him, so there wasn’t much point in denying it.
What’s more, Williams may well have seen him. She referred to Mouratoglou giving her “the thumbs up”, which may have been what she saw from her vantage point, or how she chose to present it to the chair umpire. But however clearly she saw it, the advice was something she immediately began to implement.
Still … a coaching violation is against the coach, not the player. It doesn’t matter if the player saw the signals or heard the advice (or whatever form it takes). It is not an accusation of cheating against the player.
But Williams would not be dissuaded.
On the next changeover, Ramos did his very best to defuse the situation, to assure Williams that he was not, in fact, accusing her of cheating. She seemed satisfied.
But somewhere, in her head, she seemed to think that meant the code violation, and warning, were rescinded. Which would prove relevant later on.
Shortly after that, Williams sabotaged herself with an impressive trashing of her Wilson racket. Williams had been up a break in the second set at 3-1. But she double-faulted twice in that game to surrender the break.
Second code violation: point penalty.
Williams pleaded ignorance on that one, thinking it would only be a warning.
“This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems,” she said to Ramos. “You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. You owe me an apology.I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her. You owe me an apology.”
And then … it got ugly
After Osaka held for 4-3, Williams went back at Ramos on the next changeover.
“I explained that to you (the non-coaching). For you to attack my character. … You’re attacking my character. You owe me an apology. And you will never, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar,” Williams said.
And she wouldn’t let it go.
“When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. SAY IT. Say you’re sorry. … Then don’t talk to me. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating?”
And then, the coup de grâce.
“You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too,” she said.
And that was enough. Ramos assessed another code violation. Which, given it was the third, now came with a game penalty.
The common narrative out there was that she was unfairly docked a full game merely for calling Ramos a “thief” – when many other (male) players have done far worse, with far more four-letter words. (Williams, a notorious potty mouth, showed remarkable restraint in that regard considering how angry she was).
But to cherry-pick that argument is to ignore that most often, the unacceptable language comes as a first violation. Therefore, a warning. Or, at worst, a second violation for a penalty point.
Had Williams not already had two strikes on her, it would have been the same for her.
Rarely does it escalate to a being the third violation. If it does, and the chair umpire assesses a violation for umpire abuse (which they almost always will), it would be a game penalty – for any player.
Williams was not singled out in this regard.
Calling the referee
Williams called the referee and the supervisor, Brian Earley and Donna Kelso, to plead her case after the game penalty.
She then pulled out the heaviest artillery.
“This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair.To give me a point – to lose a game for saying that, is not fair. It’s really not. You know how many other men do things, they do much worse than that,” she told them, near tears. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they’re men, it doesn’t happen to them.
“Because I’m woman, you’re going to take this away from me?You know that’s not right. I know you can’t admit it, but you know it’s not right. I get the rules, I’m just saying it’s not right. … And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I played, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
On the final changeover, just before Osaka was to serve for the match at 5-4, Williams returned to the corner of the court to have another go with the officials. Her longtime agent, Jill Smoller had already been there to plead Williams’ case. Which is extraordinary in itself.
The sexism argument
The first argument put forth by many of Williams’ defenders was that the coaching rule is not universally applied, and so is unfair. That may be true. But it’s also a rule. And Ramos is known to apply it unlike many of his colleagues who prefer to avoid the confrontation. He even docked Williams’ sister Venus for it at the 2016 French Open.
The other is that it was a blatant case of sexism.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for everyday sexism in all walks of life. Tennis is hardly immune.
But if you’re going to try to make that argument in this case based upon the fact that Williams is a woman and Ramos is a man – or that men wouldn’t get the same sanction in the same situation – you’re not on solid ground.
Just because Williams pulled that out – both on court, and in her press conference afterwards – doesn’t make it fact.
If there were multiple examples of women abusing chair umpires in far less vulgar fashion than the male players, and yet being excessively penalized in relation to them, you could build a case.
But it rarely happens. The women argue, but it almost never escalates to this point. Williams stands nearly alone in that regard. So there really aren’t comparables.
The only argument she could make would be that she was unfairly singled out, personally. But there’s no history with Ramos in that regard. Williams even conceded during her press conference that he “has always been a great umpire.”
And nothing Ramos Saturday night did was out of line with how he chairs every match he works. You could see that he did his best to try to calm Williams down.
But at a certain point, when a player is accusing you of things you didn’t do (such as “attacking her character”), is calling you both a liar and a thief and demanding an apology multiple times when you’ve done no wrong, there’s a line that gets crossed.
Williams, seeking to make history with her 24th major title, denied that opportunity at Wimbledon back in July by Angelique Kerber, was losing.
Not only was she losing, she was being beaten by a better player on the day. There’s a distinction there, in that if Williams were beating herself, she would have every hope that she could turn it around by simply playing better, playing to her legendary level.
But that’s not what was happening. In fact, Williams was having to change her game. She was having to try Plan B and Plan C to try to find something what would hurt Osaka. The 20-year-old major final rookie was playing flawless tennis. She was earning it.
We’ve all seen Williams when she’s behind, and fighting with everything she has to try to come back. It’s loud. It’s even desperate at times. She is the toughest competitor the women’s game has ever seen. There is simply no one in her class.
But this isn’t the same Serena as before she had Olympia. Even she admits it; if she had to put a number on it, she’d put it at 50-60 per cent.
So she doesn’t have the same tools to fight with – not at the moment, at least. And that has to be a source of frustration for her as well. She knows exactly what she’s capable of doing at full Serena-strength. But she’s not quite sure she’s got at this particular stage of her career.
And after two weeks of fighting through some of the most challenging weather ever at the US Open, winning six matches and dealing with all of the other distractions, she was tired. And she couldn’t keep her cool.
Kindness to Osaka
The trophy ceremony was as awkward as they come.
Most of the fans in the largest crowd in tennis probably didn’t even fully understand what had happened. Ramos’s announcements largely were drowned out by the noise inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe, and the very vocal Serena fans were causing a ruckus.
To her credit, Williams reached out to Osaka at the net with it was over, and gave her a big hug. She also tried to quiet the crowd down to give Osaka her due. And she was comforting on the stage when the 20-year-old was overcome with understandable emotion after all that had come before.
So Williams did what she could.
But the drama was all of her own doing. And as agent Smoller led the inappropriate applause in the press conference room when Williams was done saying what she had to say, she has no one to blame but herself.
The fines, in the end, turned out to be a rather manageable $17,000 US, $10,000 of which was for the verbal abuse. The racket smash cost her $3,000, and Mouratoglou’s coaching moves the other $4,000.
It could have been (probably should have been) much worse. In fact, it has been worse.
Flashback to 2009
Williams was fined $175,000 following an investigation after the 2009 US Open semifinal, which featured her pointed threats towards line umpire Shino Tsurubuchi.
Tsurubuchi had called her for a foot fault, on a second serve, when she was two points away from defeat.
The fine ended up being cut to $82,500 after Williams committed no further infractions over the next two years.
In that instance, Williams also received a point penalty, to put her down match point at the time. The subsequent advance towards Tsurubuchi earned her the game penalty – and gave the match to opponent Kim Clijsters.
Here’s the statement she put out the day after that one.
“Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience.”
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.
NEW YORK – Even as she was trying to close out her semifinal match against Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka was using a potential meet-up with the legendary Serena Williams in the final as motivation.
And she got there, in impressive fashion.
And so, during a US Open in which the WTA Tour’s top 10 were, collectively, not up to the task, it is the No. 20 seed against the upgraded No. 17 seed for the title.
And somehow, it feels right.
Osaka made a big splash last March, when she ran through the field at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. It was a huge victory – her first and, still, only title – and one she might not have been ready for.
But these things happen when they happen. Six months on, after an impressive run in New York, she seems better equipped to handle what may come.
“Of course it feels a little bit, like, surreal. Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it,” Osaka said after the win over Keys. “At the same time I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”
Easier said than done, as Williams’s run to the final has been equally impressive. She’s not yet back to the best Serena, as her daughter Olympic turns one. But it has been close enough. And given the state of the women’s game at the moment, it has been more than enough.
“My mom said it takes, like, a full year to kind of get back. I’m at a full year now. But I’m also playing a sport professionally. The emotions and expectations and all the other stuff that you add on top of it, it’s a lot, you know. I just feel like I’m definitely not there. Even my body is different. Like, I actually weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, but it’s distributed differently now,” Williams said.
“I’m still waiting to get to be the Serena that I was, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that physically, emotionally, mentally. But I’m on my way. I feel like I still have a ways to go. Once I get there, I’ll be able to play even hopefully better.”
Williams is looking for that record-tying 24th major title. As serendipity would have it, Margaret Court won her 24th and final major title exactly on this day, 35 years ago, at the US Open. It was held at Forest Hills then, and played on grass.
Serena thought she might get it at Wimbledon, but she was denied by Angelique Kerber.
But Kerber was a different opponent. She didn’t serve as hard, or hit the ball as hard. Plus, she was already a Grand Slam champion and had been ranked No. 1 in the world.
A new world for Osaka, citizen of the world
For Osaka, this is all new territory. And it’s the culmination of a turnaround this year, after a 2017 season in which she was below .500.
The addition of Sascha Bajin, the longtime hitting and confidante of Serena Williams who was getting his first shot at a coaching job, proved a stroke of genius.
At this level, there aren’t a ton of technical changes – or even significant tactical changes – that are made. The players’ games are what they are. And so on the itemized list of coaching qualities, the personal rapport between player and coach has never been more key. The rest is hardly rocket science.
Bajin, a loyal, likeable fellow, has been around big-time tennis long enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. During his years with Serena, he got a close-up view.
And as a younger, less stern, highly energetic coach who also can keep up with his player on the hitting side, he has proven to be a huge positive.
One thing that has started happening is that Osaka is serving hard again.
We remember the first time we saw her play, more than three years ago at a small ITF event in Granby, Quebec, right after Wimbledon.
She was playing Laura Robson, who won Wimbledon juniors as a 14-year-old and has been a cautionary tale for too much, too soon ever since. Robson had hip surgery a few months ago.
But what we’d forgotten from that match was just how hard Osaka used to serve. She was blowing them past Robson. And at times, she’d come close to nailing a center line umpire – which made her apologize and giggle every time.
Coaches’ press conference
Bajin held his own press conference after Osaka reached the semis.
There’s no doubt he can be of serious assistance to Osaka against Williams. Because he knows his former boss so well – probably better than anyone she has ever worked with, with the exception of her parents and Patrick Mouratoglou.
“I think they really are different people, because the only similarity they have is that they kind of have the same hair – big hair,” he said, smiling. “I believe that they kind of want to play the same, you know. They are very powerful, big serves, big hitters, both of them. But even on court, Serena is very aggressive, you know, and Naomi, I have to push her to get a fist pump out of her. … I’m working very hard, and we are all, in the team, working hard to make sure that Naomi one day might own the court like Serena.”
Here’s Osaka 2 1/2 years ago, playing her first-round qualifying match in Charleston. Emotions on full display.
First meeting in Miami
It was the (bad) luck of the draw that Osaka’s first match after that Indian Wells win was at another big tournament in Miami against … Serena. Williams’s ranking was still down in the nether regions, and Osaka’s desert result hadn’t yet kicked in. So despite the 32 seeds in the Miami draw, both were unseeded. And they were drawn against each other.
Finally, Osaka was playing her idol. But Williams was a shadow of herself that day and it was, all in all, awkward. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2.
“I kind of wanted to impress her,” said Osaka. “I just wanted to make her say ‘Come on!’ one time, and I think she did, so I’m really happy about that.”
It was only her second tournament back after a maternity break.
“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now. I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation. It was what it was,” Williams said. “I mean, hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”
All about carpe diem
Will Osaka seize the day? Coach Bajin says she “really craves the big stage”. Cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, with more than 23,000 on hand, is the biggest stage there it.
“It’s really cool that I was able to play her so early (in Miami). Of course, I feel like since the circumstances were so different, I’ll be able to see, like, how she changed and stuff. I think that experience was really good for me,” Osaka said.
For Williams, chasing more history but in a far better place physically than she was a few months ago, it will very much come down to nerves. As she turns 37 in a few weeks, those match nerves become more of a factor. That’s true of every player, not just Williams.
She has been pushing back these younger rivals for years now. And there’s nothing like a player technically young enough to be your daughter poking the beast with the understandable, “I’ve been watching Serena since I was a little girl” types of quotes.
But she’s getting more of her inspiration from her own journey.
“I got a little emotional out there (after the semifinal win) because last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital. I think I was on my fourth surgery by now. What is today? I was on my third surgery. I had one more to go still. To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still,” She said.
“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”
On this date in 2001
It was also 17 years ago today that Venus and Serena Williams met to contest the US Open final.
It was a Saturday night final, the first one.
The major schedule change to prime time was effected precisely because the two American sisters (and Jennifer Capriati) were in contention. And there was expectation that it would happen many more times over the years.
It was a purely American change, because it meant the final would be played in the middle of the night across all of Europe.
Venus won that one. Since then, she won three times at Wimbledon. But other than those triumphs on the grass, that was the last time she won a Grand Slam title. It’s crazy, when you think about it.
The all-Williams final at the US Open happened again the follow year. Serena won it. And it has not happened since.
Since then, the primetime final was moved back to 4 p.m.
They last met at Indian Wells this year, where Serena was returning to action for the first time in singles since her maternity leave. Venus won that one. Before that, they met in the 2017 Australian Open final – the last tournament before Serena’s leave.
As Venus jokes, it was “two against one” in that one, won by Serena 6-4, 6-4 with baby Olympia already more than a twinkle in father Alexis Ohanian’s eye.
2.  Sloane Stephens (USA) vs. [WC] Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
Azarenka has looked very good through her first two matches. She dropped just three games in rolling over No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova in the second round.
Stephens, the reigning US Open women’s singles champion, had to come back from a set down to prevail over qualifier Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine in the second round.
On any other day, this would be the spotlight women’s match.
But it may well still be a very good one. Azarenka still holds a 3-2 edge. But she had the misfortune of running into Stephens at both Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year. And Stephens won both of those.
3.  Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs. [Q] Karolina Muchova (CZE)
Muchova caused a pretty major surprise late Wednesday night (early Thursday morning) as she took down No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.
Muguruza because increasingly agitated as that match went on. Muchova, ranked just outside the top 200 coming in, became increasingly at ease after a nervy start to the biggest match of her young career.
The matchup with Barty will be a very different one. And it should be one tennis purists will really enjoy.
Barty is one of the few higher-ranked players on the WTA Tour with a genuinely varied game, full of imagination and with a willingness to hit all the shots and come to the net on a regular basis.
Muchova has similar skills and mindset, even if her pro game is still in its relative infancy.
They get the Grandstand court, which is far less intimidating than cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium.
For Barty, getting a qualifier in the third round is a great break. For Muchova, the question will be whether she’s able to put aside her career win and keep her head down and her mind uncluttered for her next assignment.
Three men’s matches to watch
The Slam star power is definitely on the women’s side in Friday’s schedule. But there remain some compelling men’s matchups well worth a look – with a distinctly Canadian flavor.
1.  Milos Raonic (CAN) vs. [WC] Stan Wawrinka (SUI)
The former US Open champion Wawrinka needed a wild card to get in this year, as he makes his way back from two knee surgeries.
He’s back in the top 100 now, so that won’t be an issue going forward. But over the last few weeks, his level has been far closer to the top-five performer he was for several years.
As for Raonic, also beset by injuries if not of the same severity, he’s also a former top-five player. And a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon two years ago.
Here in New York without coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose wife is expecting a baby, he was better in his second round than he was in his first round. And his serve is working.
Wawrinka holds a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head. Raonic won the last one – a five-setter in the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open. But that was more than 2 1/2 years ago; a lot of water under the bridge since then.
2.  Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs.  Fernando Verdasco (ESP)
Verdasco pulled off a tough one against Andy Murray in the second round. And he saved some energy when doubles partner Vasek Pospisil, who pulled up a little broken the day after his night-match loss to Rafael Nadal, begged off the doubles.
While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are getting all the attention – with the potential quarterfinal clash between the Swiss and the Serb already highly anticipated – del Potro is definitely under the radar.
It has been nine years since he won his first and, so far, only Grand Slam title here.
Del Potro is 4-1 against Verdasco, with their two best battles coming on very fast indoor hard courts. The courts at the US Open this year are … not that fast.
3.  Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs.  Denis Shapovalov (CAN)
Shapovalov has burned a lot of physical and mental energy in getting this far. But on the plus side, he’s at the tail end of this summer period where he had to defend both a Masters 1000 semifinal, and a Grand Slam fourth round on the rankings tally.
He’s already largely done that, mitigating any potential drop in the rankings by at least getting credible results both in Canada and in New York.
Against Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist he’s meeting for the first time, he can at least enjoy shorter points. And on a cooler day. On the downside, Anderson’s big serve will test the young Canadian’s inconsistent return game.
The big South African survived a five-setter of his own in the first round, against American Ryan Harrison.
It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.
But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.
Chapter 5 is called Choices, Choices, Choices
WIMBLEDON – We’ll have to assume, for the sake of argument, that there was no way for the All England Club to get special dispensation from the Merton Borough Council to break curfew – just this once.
Because a 1 a.m. finish for Djokovic vs. Nadal Friday night into Saturday would have been a better solution for all concerned.
The winner of the match could have slept in Saturday, perhaps had a light hit, a lot of treatment. And then, on Sunday, play the final.
As it is, one of them had to play late Friday, relatively early Saturday – and again on Sunday, where he will face the equally exhausted Kevin Anderson.
Anderson spent over 11 hours on court from Wednesday through Friday, just in two extra-time matches against John Isner and Roger Federer.
11:03 p.m.: the end
If the All England Club had the option somehow, and didn’t exercise it, it did two of its illustrious former champions a disservice.
As it was, they returned to the court just 14 hours later to finish where they left off Friday night, when Djokovic squeezed out the third-set tiebreak to lead two sets to one.
The decision to start their semifinal – which kicked off around 8 p.m. because of the length of the Anderson-Isner marathon – under the roof was up to the referee, Andrew Jarrett.
It made sense, because there wasn’t going to be much daylight left, and better to take the time to close the roof and get the air-conditioning systems adjusted during the break after the first match.
It was going to have to happen anyway at some point, and time was precious.
The decision to resume on a beautiful, sunny Saturday with the roof closed was also Jarrett’s. Except, if both players agreed to play “outdoors”, with the roof open, at what is an outdoor tournament, it could have been changed even if it wasn’t a hard and fast rule.
One wanted to, one did not, is the general consensus although there’s no official confirmation from any of the parties involved at this point.
No. 1 Court option not an option
There certainly is precedent at Wimbledon for a men’s semifinal to be played on No. 1 Court.
We tend to forget all the years when rain played havoc with the schedule, often threatening to prevent the tournament from finishing on time. And a couple of times, it actually did.
But as former finalist Andy Roddick pointed out Friday night on Twitter, he’s been there.
Once he was moved over to finish. On the second occasion, he played the entire match there.
Both times, he won, and ended up losing to Roger Federer in the final.
But Djokovic vs. Nadal in 2018 is not Roddick vs. Ancic, or Roddick vs. Johansson a dozen years ago.
No offense to those two fine players.
There was virtually no chance in Hades the tournament would move Nadal and Djokovic to No. 1 Court to finish their match.
Beyond the television considerations, the players likely would have both raised a ruckus.
It would have eliminated the roof-or-no-roof choice, though.
Had the second semifinal featured, say, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, you can speculate it might have been a different story. Had the women’s final not featured Williams, it might have been another story again.
The women pay the price – again
The way the schedule panned out, part of it no one’s fault, is a tough one for the men.
But it’s an even tougher one for the women.
Seven-time champion Serena Williams and two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber will reprise their 2016 final.
Except they had no clue when they would play. They couldn’t be sure when to eat, when to warm up, when to do anything.
And that was especially key because of the lack of a fifth-set tiebreak for the men.
At precisely 1 p.m. Saturday, when they were due to walk on Centre Court with their flower bouquets, Nadal was just wrapping up the fourth set against Djokovic.
Didn’t it seem as though we were beyond this back in the 1990s, when they finally did away with the facetiously-named Super Saturday at the US Open?
For a couple of decades, the women were an afterthought. They were the white creme between the two Oreo cookies as CBS dictated they be scheduled between the two men’s semifinals on the second Saturday.
Mercifully, that finally ended.
Serena and her sister Venus had everything to do with this when, back in 2001, it was decided that they could headline a night session with their significant star power.
The end of CBS’s longstanding contract as the event’s main broadcaster also allowed for more flexibility.
And then, the fact that someone finally decided that having the men play best-of-five sets on the Saturday, and come right back on the Sunday afternoon and play another best-of-five sets for a major title didn’t make for optimal tennis.
Well, maybe they considered that. Maybe.
Super Saturday to the max
The epic moment in Super Saturday history came on Sept. 8, 1984. Every match went the distance and every player on court that day was a champion.
First off was a legends’ match that began at 11 a.m. when Stan Smith defeated John Newcombe. Ironically, CBS had requested that extra match because the previous year’s Super Saturday had featured three blowouts.
Then came the first men’s semi: Ivan Lendl defeated Pat Cash 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 7–6 (7–4). (Thank goodness for the fifth-set tiebreak).
Then, finally, the legendary Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova came on to play the women’s singles final.
Navratilova won that one, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4.
Then, closing in on 7:30 p.m., bitter rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors finally took the court for the second men’s semi.
McEnroe won that one, 6–4, 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 6–3. It all ended at 11:16 p.m.
Women’s doubles also a casualty
With Nadal and Djokovic taking priority on Centre Court, one of the other finals was bumped off.
Of course, it was the women’s doubles final between Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.
They had been scheduled after the women’s singles final and the best-of-five sets men’s doubles final.
That’s long enough to wait (and with the men’s doubles also not having a deciding-set tiebreak, who knows how long).
But with the change, they have been relegated to “Court to be determined – not before 5 p.m.” status along with the far less consequential legends match featuring Thomas Enqvist, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis.
So they don’t know when they’re going to play. And they don’t know where.
It’s thin soup. Even given the extraordinary circumstances, you feel somehow that the tournament could have made better choices.