Naomi Osaka is one of the brightest stars in women’s tennis after winning yet another major, the 2021 Australian Open recently. While Osaka is undoubtedly one of the best tennis players in the world, her first Grand Slam win exacted a toll. During the 2018 U.S. Open, she competed against her idol, Serena Williams.
Though the young prodigy won, the media seeded the moment with controversy that Osaka still thinks about today.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams
Although Osaka was born in Japan, details the Washington Post, she spent much of her childhood in the United States. Half-Japanese, half-black, Serena Williams showed that the lily-white sport of tennis was ready for some adversity. From infancy on, Osaka took in every match her idol played and crafted game after her.
At just 23 years old, she’s already one of the best young sensations since Serena and her sister burst onto the scene as teenagers. Osaka and Williams had a connection before that, but playing in the 2018 U.S. Open against Williams was a dream that the former athlete had since childhood.
As for Williams, she’s made a habit of embracing the sport’s young stars in situations where less humble personalities may not have done so. However, after some controversial officiating in 2018, what should have been an incredible moment for Osaka turned into something ugly.
Naomi Osaka on the infamous 2018 U.S. Open match
Going into the match against her idol, Osaka, just 20 years old at the time, psyched herself up by pretending that it was just another match, she told GQ while looking back at it. “I always think of all my matches as a tennis match, no matter who I play,” Osaka said. Of course, it wasn’t just another match.
For the entirety of her tennis career, Williams had been the one who inspired her to get where she was. When the match began, however, something was wrong. ESPN notes that chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code violation for allegedly receiving coaching from the stands. Williams insisted she did not, citing that her glance at the coach was standard for every player to do.
Williams’s outburst at Ramos became a bigger story than Osaka’s win. However, while Osaka regrets some aspects of her first Grand Slam, she’s also not ready to diminish or demean it, something Williams also refused to do despite the added drama.
Osaka opens up
After the controversy put a damper on the celebration, Osaka wished she spoke on what she believed to be a media attack on her idol. Despite the win, it put a cloud of darkness over the whole ordeal. She told GQ:
After the match, I didn’t have my phone or anything on me. I was just eating dinner with my parents. And then when I woke up the next morning, it was on the news. So for me, I was very shocked because, first of all, that was the first time I was ever on the news. Second of all, I felt like it was for all the wrong reasons. So I feel like this is something that I’ve learned over the years. But I wish I could have said something back then.
However, while she regrets not speaking up, Osaka also believes she won that fair and square. “[The controversy] doesn’t taint anything. I would say it definitely made it very controversial. But I feel like anybody that watches tennis would have appreciated the match,” she told GQ.
Whether it was tainted or not, Osaka has proven that it was no fluke. Now a four-time Grand Slam winner, Osaka is consistently competing with the best of the best and winning. Her 2021 win over Williams, as remembered by the New York Times, showed that she didn’t need friendly officiating, just talent and the will she learned from her idol.
Whether we get many more Williams and Osaka matches, none will be as big as the first. That not only kicked off a friendly rivalry but showed the hurdles both stars went through to get to where they are today.