13 Sep 2020

Tennis: Osaka's US Open win repairs some pain, but it still wasn't quite right

9:23 pm on 13 September 2020

By Jon Healy for the ABC

Analysis: When Naomi Osaka stood on the podium in Arthur Ashe Stadium two years ago, she was in tears.

US Open winner Naomi Osaka is comforted by runner up Serena Williams during the trophy presentation

Serena Williams comforts Naomi Osaka after the controversial final of the US Open in 2018. Photo: AFP

She had just won her first major title as a 20-year-old, beating Serena Williams - her idol and possibly the greatest champion the sport has seen - but she looked like she would rather be anywhere else.

This moment of triumph for an emerging superstar should have been perfect - the first major winner from Japan, won on American soil by a woman born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father who moved to the US and got their kids into tennis because of the Williams sisters.

Instead, a prolonged, fiery argument between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos, which ended in Williams calling Ramos "a thief" and forfeiting a game for her third code violation, had stolen the show.

The crowd booed and jeered throughout the trophy presentation and Osaka pulled her visor down over her face, but it couldn't hide the tears rolling down her cheeks.

The fury may not have been entirely meant for Osaka, but she was the collateral damage of their volleys.

Williams put her arm around the young victor and called on the crowd to stop booing, all the while failing to acknowledge that her behaviour played a part in creating this maelstrom.

It all ignored that Osaka played an exceptional tournament and a brilliant final, to the point that she had already won the first set by the time things entered the Twilight Zone.

The whole farce was encapsulated by the devastating moment when Osaka, through her tears, apologised for winning.

Robbed of her moment and effectively ignored by fans more interested in the drama than her arrival on the biggest stage, she had every reason to be bitter. Instead, she won people over with her humility and ability that night and ever since.

Osaka has refused to go quietly into the shadows that claim so many bright young stars that score an upset win in a major.

More time in front of the cameras has only seen her impress more with her play and personality, which is either frank honesty, impossibly deadpan character art or some combination of the two.

She carried the laser focus from the second set of that 2018 final all the way through the 2019 Australian Open, winning the title and becoming world number one in the process.

Naomi Osaka of Japan poses with the women's singles championship trophy during the draw announcement of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 16, 2020. Won title in 2019

Naomi Osaka with the Australian Open trophy that she won in Melbourne in 2019. Photo: AFP

Not even a year after Williams tried to comfort her in front of a baying crowd, Osaka on the same court beat rising star Coco Gauff and after the match embraced the 15-year-old, bringing her on court for an emotional joint interview.

"I think it's better than going into shower and crying," she told Gauff when the teenager said she would be too emotional.

"I think you've got to let these people know how you feel."

As it turns out, the inspiration might have worked a little too well, with Gauff turning the tables when the pair met a few months later at the Australian Open.

Coco Gauff of the US greets Japan's Naomi Osaka at the end of their women's singles match on day five of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 24, 2020. (

Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff greet each other at the end of their match at the Australian Open last January. Photo: AFP

Not only has Osaka come into her own as a player, but as a person and leader of a generation of stars like Gauff, Nick Kyrgios and Frances Tiafoe, who refuse to simply "stick to sports".

As a prominent black Asian female athlete from a mixed-race, immigrant family living in the United States during a time of intense social and political upheaval, with race and cultural identity front and centre, Osaka is uniquely placed to share her perspective on the social issues engulfing the US.

When footage of George Floyd's death in police custody started circulating in May, she joined marches in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. (Gauff was marching and speaking in Florida).

In August, when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police, she joined in the work stoppage started by NBA teams, but risked more by doing so in an individual sport and sparked a pause for tennis as a whole.

"I don't expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction," she said.

"Watching the continued genocide of black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Naomi Osaka of Japan walks on court  before her Women's Singles final match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Day Thirteen of the 2020 US Open in New York

Photo: AFP

Her social media feeds are littered with messages of sadness, delivered with the matter-of-fact brevity that she has become famous for, making her arguments all the more compelling in their simplicity.

So when the US Open carried on less than a month after she felt she couldn't play a match in the current climate, it wasn't surprising that Osaka used her protective face mask to make a statement and show support for the black families who had loved ones ripped away too early.

When Trayvon Martin's mother and Ahmaud Arbery's father delivered personalised messages to her, Osaka somehow held it together on the ESPN telecast, but admitted after the fact that she shed more than a few tears.

The woman once described as the most awkward person on tour has transformed, but done so in typically quiet fashion.

What once seemed to be shyness is just general composure and control that wins her matches on the court and respect off it.

Unfortunately, she's still yet to receive that properly from the New York crowd that embarrassed her and themselves that night back in 2018.

When she lifted the trophy today, there should have been thousands of screaming fans rocking Arthur Ashe Stadium with the power of their sheer love for her. Instead, there were just strange disembodied heads shouting into their webcams.

She deserved better in 2018 and it doesn't seem fair she couldn't get it this time around.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.