Naomi Osaka shocked Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, in an emotional final that left both players in tears to win the 2018 US Open women’s singles title Saturday, becoming the first Japanese player to win a major singles title in the history of the sport.
Her win inside Arthur Ashe Stadium denied Williams a 24th Grand Slam women’s singles title, which would have tied the all-time record held by Margaret Court for 45 years.
Osaka played beautiful tennis, a combination of power and poise that belied the reality of the fact that she was contesting her first major final.
“I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done,” Osaka said. “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.”
But Osaka’s impressive victory, wholly deserved and the cap on an incredible two weeks in Flushing Meadows, was overshadowed by multiple violations handed to Williams from chair umpire Carlos Ramos, the third of which cost Williams a game, left the capacity crowd booing, and moved Osaka one game away from her maiden title.
Williams, who was stretched side to side with regularity, held to love to cut the deficit to 5-4, but Osaka capitalized on her second match point, a booming unreturnable serve to the Williams forehand. The moment was tarnished amid the controversy, with Osaka, who never once appeared nervous under the ultimate spotlight, again in tears during the trophy ceremony, during which time the American appealed for calm and called for an end to the boos.
“I don’t know how I’m feeling yet,” Williams said in her press conference after the match. “Haven’t had time to really process everything. But I’m just trying, like I said out there, to stay positive and to look at all the bright things and all the good things and just keep going forward with that.”
Williams was far from her best, and she unraveled in a contentious second set that may unfortunately be remembered more than Osaka’s historic victory.
The 36-year-old was given a code violation for coaching at 40-15 in the first game of the second set and a second code violation for smashing her racquet after double-faulting on consecutive points at 3-1 to get Osaka back on serve.
Williams told Ramos that she doesn’t cheat to win and claimed he was attacking her character. Williams called Ramos a “thief” and said he had stolen a point from her, referring to the fact that a second code violation is an automatic one-point penalty.
After a lengthy exchange with Ramos, which brought Tournament Referee Brian Earley out to the court, a finger-pointing and visibly upset Williams was given a third code violation for verbal abuse, this one costing her a game.
“It’s not right, it’s not fair,” Williams pleaded with Earley. “For you to attack my character, something is wrong.”
While the spotlight is on everybody except the champion, take nothing away from a polished performance for a 20-year-old who came into New York with one career title to her name. She broke the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion twice in each set, serving out the match at the first opportunity to put the bow on an 81-minute triumph that turned ugly in the latter stages.
It was the fourth time in the Open era that a player seeded No. 10 or higher won the US Open, joining wild card Kim Clijsters in 2006, No. 26 seed Flavia Pennetta in 2015 and unseeded Sloane Stephens 12 months ago.
Osaka, who had kept Williams on the back foot throughout the match with penetrating ground strokes from both wings, came out the better of the two players, breaking for a 2-1 lead when Williams double faulted on break point and again for a 4-1 advantage, when a backhand found the middle of the net. Williams was down a double break inside 20 minutes, and Osaka thoroughly deserved her lead, even before the controversy began.
The Japanese saved the only two break points she faced in the 33-minute first set, serving it out in style with an unreturnable 93-mph arrow down the ‘T’ and a body serve. Williams tried to pump herself up, but Osaka, the youngest woman to reach the US Open final since Caroline Wozniacki did so at age 19 in 2009, never waivered, even when the crowd started to rally behind their champion.
Williams led 3-1 in the second set despite the first violation, but her game unraveled when two double faults cost her a chance to consolidate the break.
At 16 years, 20 days, the age gap between Williams and Osaka was the second-widest in US Open finals history, behind only Monica Seles’ defeat of Martina Navratilova, who was 17 years, 45 days her senior, at the 1991 US Open. But it was the veteran who failed her cool, while the youngster handled the moment as well as could be expected.
“The thing is, I don’t know what happened on the court,” Osaka said. “So for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me, at the net and on the podium. I don’t really see what would change.”
Osaka broke for the fourth time in the match with a perfect forehand down the line after blocking back a 109-mph serve, and she was awarded a fifth game because of the penalty that had Williams wiping away tears as she protested her innocence while simultaneously fighting her case with Ramos.
While Williams made it 5-4 and saved the first match point with a forehand down the line, Osaka succeeded on her second championship point, which was met with a muted celebration.
Williams, who said she had never had any previous issues with Ramos and that he’s “always been a great umpire,” added: “This is her moment. Stop booing because she doesn’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it. The people on the tennis court didn’t deserve it. They were all here to see tennis.
“She played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it was.”
Osaka finished with 16 winners and 14 unforced errors, having landed 73 percent of her first serves and dropping just 11 of 42 points on her first serve. Williams had as many winners (21) as miscues, but never found her rhythm on her service games. She made just 55 percent of her first serves and committed six double faults, including one in each of her first four games.
The Japanese had dropped just 28 games through six matches in reaching the final. It was the fewest games dropped for a finalist since Williams reached the 2014 championship match having lost just 26 games. And with a sparkling performance Saturday, she showed the world the kind of form that saw her reach the championship finale.
WHAT IT MEANS: With Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber winning the other three majors of the season, Osaka’s win means there are four different champions in the same season for the second year in a row.
Osaka becomes the fifth first-time champion in the last eight Slams. It’s the first time in 80 years that there have been four different major champions in back-to-back seasons.
For Williams, she remains on 23 major singles titles, still the most in the Open era, and six US Open trophies, shared for the most of all time with Chirs Evert. She’ll have her next chance at tying Court’s record in Court’s homeland at the 2019 Australian Open.
MATCH POINT: Osaka had saved 24 of 28 break points against her over the past two weeks, including all 13 she faced against Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinal. Her mental strength was on full display again Saturday evening, as she saved five of six break points in a fantastic display of handling pressure and emotions under the most unexpected of circumstances.