The attention of the tennis world has been centred on Serena Williams in the last few days. The 23-time Grand Slam champion was gunning for her seventh US Open title in New York City on Saturday, but the American – who is widely considered to be the best women’s player in the history of the sport, and perhaps even the greatest female of all time – was stunned by the 20th seed, Naomi Osaka.
Williams was initially penalised by Carlos Ramos after the umpire interpreted a signal from Patrick Mouratoglou as coaching, a charge the player vehemently and immediately rejected. Things got even worse for the 36-year-old, who was docked a point for racquet smashing in the second set before later seeing her opponent awarded a whole game after she aimed a remarkable rant at Ramos during a mid-set changeover.
After the match Williams accused the umpire of sexism, suggesting he would not have acted the same had she been a male player. The WTA, meanwhile, have backed the former world number one in the fallout that has inevitably followed, with chief executive Steve Simon releasing a statement in which he asserts “there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women”. This is a row which shows few signs of dying down any time soon.
Debate has raged in the days since the final, with some siding with Williams and others backing Ramos. Yet while the episodes has highlighted issues which need to be addressed – accusations of sexism cannot simply be brushed aside – it is a shame that the extent of Osaka’s phenomenal accomplishment seems to have got a little lost in the aftermath of the final.
The first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament, Osaka was an outsider when the US Open got under way last month; she had shown flashes of her potential and ability before this year’s edition of the competition at Flushing Meadows, and some punters did tip her as a potential dark horse, but the bookmakers favoured the more experienced trio of Williams, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens.
Osaka had made excellent progress in the preceding couple of years, however. Reaching the third round of both the Australian Open and the French Open in 2015 was a fine achievement for a teenager, as was progressing to the same stage of the US Open the following year – when she was also voted the newcomer of the year at the annual WTA Awards. Osaka then made it to third round at Wimbledon in 2017, overcoming Sara Sorribes Tormo and Barbora Strycova before being defeated by Serena Williams’ sister, Venus. She earned even more plaudits at the US Open by beating defending champion Angelique Kerber in the first round, although she once again failed to make it beyond the third round.
At the start of 2018 Osaka found herself ranked 68th in the world, but her position was boosted when she reached the fourth round of the Australian Open – the first time she had made it that far in a Grand Slam event. She later beat former world number ones Maria Sharapova and Karolína Plískova and the current world number one Halep on her way to glory at the BNP Paribas Open, confirming her status as a rising star in the women’s game.
The US Open got off to an excellent start for Osaka as she defeated Laura Siegemund in straight sets in the first round (6-3, 6-2) and Julian Glushko (6-2, 6-0 in the second). That was followed up with an emphatic triumph over Aliaksandra Sasnovich in which the 20-year-old did not lose a single game, before a more hard-fought victory over Aryna Sabalenka (6-3, 2-6, 6-4). Osaka then thrashed Lesia Tsurenko (6-1, 6-1) in the last eight and eased past Madison Keys (6-2, 6-4) in the semi-finals, setting up a meeting with Williams in the final.
The American was clearly unsettled from the moment Ramos ruled she had benefitted from coaching, but nothing should be taken away from Osaka’s achievement. We can only hope that the Japanese’s triumph is suitable recognised once the furore around the Williams episode dies down.