Here was Serena Williams, the greatest women’s tennis player of her era, owner of 23 Major singles titles, playing 45 years to the day after Margaret Court set the all-time record, men or women, for Major singles titles: 24.
And it had been 20 years since the precocious 16-year-old Williams made her first appearance at her home Major. She won her first match—indeed won two matches—and a year later, she won the first of those 23 Majors, beating No4 seed Monica Seles, No2 seed Lindsay Davenport and the top seed Martina Hingis in the process.
She was already the oldest woman to win a Major in the Open era, courtesy of last year’s Australian title—now she could extend that as she approached her 37th birthday.
But perhaps more remarkable than all the rest is that, just a week ago she celebrated the first birthday of her daughter. Yes, rewind 12 months and, as she put it to the media after her semi-final victory:
“I was literally fighting for my life… now only a year later, I’m actually in these finals, two in a row.”
After post-partum surgery, she was back on the competition court at Indian Wells fewer than six months later. It was, not surprisingly, a struggle in those early months, a 2-2 record ahead of Roland Garros, where a fourth-round run was ended by a pectoral injury.
A month later, she was in the final of Wimbledon, and was now in the final in New York having dropped only one set and beaten three seeds—including her sister Venus, No8 Karolina Pliskova, and No19 Anastasija Sevastova.
The journey had been a remarkable and a hugely emotional one, as her tears after reaching her ninth final in New York, testified. In the end, those emotions, the coming together of so many time-lines, the weight of hope and expectation from around 20,000 fans in Arthur Ashe on this Saturday night, would prove too much—especially in the face of the stunning tennis produced by the other protagonist in this drama.
During Williams’ tough spring comeback, she had encountered for the first time the thrilling young talent, Naomi Osaka, and lost to her in the first round in Miami.
The 20-year-old Japanese woman with a power game and charming personality won her first title this spring, and what a title to start with: the mini Major that is Indian Wells, beating world No1 Simona Halep and Pliskova in the process.
And although she was still working on her consistency, she clearly relished the big stage and the big matches. She had also dropped only one set this fortnight.
Osaka had grown up idolising Williams—almost inevitable given the 17-year age gap and the dominance of the American through Osaka’s entire life. She made no secret of her admiration:
“I shouldn’t think of her as my idol, just as an opponent. When I was a little kid I always dreamed I would play Serena in a Grand Slam final. At the same time, I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match.”
She had begun to wow the American fans with her elegant power, her calm demeanour and quirky humour—displayed on two of North America’s biggest stages: the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and now Flushing Meadows. But she had a still bigger fan-base gathering at her feet.
Kei Nishikori has talked of the overwhelming attention and expectation he receives from his Japanese fans, and Osaka could expect the same—and 10-times that should she beat the most formidable force in women’s tennis. And no matter that Williams was her idol, Osaka was not about to be overwhelmed by the moment and the place.
Both had to fend off 0-30 starts on their serve, but the break from Osaka came swiftly and decisively, after a tight Williams double faulted on break point. Not satisfied with that, Osaka broke again, forcing errors from Williams, and out-pacing and out-hitting her from the baseline.
Osaka came under pressure in the sixth game, but her easy, fluid serve aced to save break point, and more big serves ensured the hold, 5-1—the last at 117mph and out wide.
Williams was clearly struggling to contain the young woman’s impressive firepower, and her serving became unusually wayward, with first deliveries finding the box less than 40 percent of the time. Osaka served out the set, 6-2, calm as could be, with only five unforced errors to Williams’ 13.
But the second set brought one dramatic incident after another as the tension really took a hold of Williams. She was given a code violation for coaching, and fiercely disagreed with the judgement, though broadcasters clearly showed Patrick Mouratoglou encouraging her to move forward.
Her discussion with the umpire seemed to clear the air, and also focused the Williams attack. She resisted a break point in the third game and pulled off a stunning drop shot winner to boot. She then went toe-to-toe with the younger woman to earn break point. It took time and persistence and four deuces, but Williams eventually got her reward at the fourth attempt, 3-1.
Osaka, though, was not fazed and, helped by two double faults from Williams, immediately broke back, and Williams racket took the punishment. It earned her another code violation, but she did not realise it was also a point deduction because she still believed she should not have been penalised for coaching.
The crowd roared and booed, Williams argued, Osaka kept her cool—and aced a love hold, 3-3. Emotions were running ever higher, with the noise under the reverberating closed roof stoking the fire. Osaka pulled off a forehand pass to break again, and Williams could contain her frustration no longer.
At the change of ends, there was another lengthy argument between the umpire and Williams as she demanded an apology for, in her perception, being accused of cheating. She was close to tears, told umpire Carlos Ramos that he was a thief, and was given a third warning for verbal abuse—an automatic game penalty.
Osaka therefore led 5-3, but Williams was beside herself, called for the referee, but to no avail. Still weeping, she nevertheless stepped to the line to deliver a love hold. So it came down to the youngster to prove her mettle in the face of extraordinary delays, emotions, and disruption from the partisan crowd.
If one game proved that mettle, it was this one: a near perfect service game to take set, match and her first Major title, 6-4.
The Japanese woman looked shell-shocked, not least because of the riotous booing that engulfed proceedings as Williams warmly congratulated her. And Williams had to take control of the presentation ceremony, too, to call on the fans to respect the winner.
Osaka, looking younger and more vulnerable with each passing minute, tried to cover her tears, and was unable to embark on the usual champion’s speech—she simply apologised for beating Williams, adding quietly: “Thank you for watching the match.”
Her solitary, uncertain figure drifted towards the banks of photographers, lifted the trophy, turned this way and that with a stiff smile. And sadly, this momentous match will be remembered as much for the Williams drama and the behaviour of the paying public as for the tennis of this deserved champion.
Her mood would begin to rise, her smile to brighten, and the boos become cheers as the young star began her round of media obligations.
And Osaka’s fame and fortune will surely begin to rise, too: She plays with a serenity that belies her years, and in an attractive, big-time style that is already winning fans far and wide. With her next Major title—and there will surely be more—she will take the applause and plaudits, and will be able to answer them with that much-missed smile.
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