It’s not often that the champion of the U.S. Open stands as defeated as Naomi Osaka did after she beat Serena Williams — the winningest tennis player in the Open era — in straight sets at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the final.
The narratives in the lead up to the match were myriad but positive. Osaka, who represents Japan when she plays but holds both U.S. and Japanese citizenship, is a 20-year-old rising star in tennis who became the first Japanese player to ever win a Grand Slam.An ascendant star in the sport, Osaka idolized Williams growing up, and her Haitian father trained his daughters in the image of the Williams sisters, teaching his kids to serve hard and hit with power.
Williams, on the other side of the court, was vying for her 24th Grand Slam title just over a year after the birth of her first child. A win would have announced the triumphant return from motherhood of the greatest tennis player of all time.
Regardless of the winner, the moment should have jubilant. Instead, Osaka and Williams ended up sobbing through the trophy ceremony.
Osaka dominated the first set of Saturday’s match, dispatching Williams 6-2. Osaka tenaciously scrambled after every one of Williams’ shots, returning in positions, at angles and with power that would make her opponent proud.
In the second set, Williams found her mojo breaking Osaka’s serve to go up 3-1 — but not before she was issued a warning by the Portuguese chair umpire Carlos Ramos for receiving coaching via hand signals, which is against the rules. Osaka then stormed back, breaking Williams’ serve to pull even at 3-3. Williams was assessed a point penalty after smashing her racket into the hardcourt in frustration.
“That made her livid,” Rebecca Traister wrote in The Cut. “And one thing black women are never allowed to be without consequence is livid.”
Williams, offended by the insinuation that she was cheating, continued to make her case to Ramos during the second case.
“I don’t cheat to win,” Williams told the chair umpire, who loomed above Williams in the umpire’s chair. “I’d rather lose.”
Osaka would win her next serve to go up 4-3 over Williams.
Williams pleaded for an apology from Ramos in between games when she called Ramos a liar and a thief for stealing a point from her. She was then given a game penalty for her third infraction, putting Osaka up 5-3 — an exceedingly rare move without precedent in a Grand Slam Final.
After the penalty, Williams pleaded her case to tournament referee Brian Earley and Grand Slam Supervisor Donna Kelso, both of whom are white.
“This has happened to me too many times,” Williams said through tears. “This is not fair. There are a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things and because they are men, that doesn’t happen to them. This is unbelievable.”
What Williams was referring to when she said “too many times” could be any number of things. Perhaps she was referencing the time Caroline Wozniacki stuffed towels in her shirt and skirt to “imitate” Williams while warming up. Perhaps she was alluding to one of three previous controversies at the U.S. Open in 2004, where the umpire made incorrect calls against Williams in a match she would eventually lose; in 2009, where Williams was fined $175,000 for a profane outburst directed at an umpire; and in 2011, where an umpire gifted Williams’ opponent a point after Williams exclaimed “Come on!” when she hit a would-be winner.
The optics of Ramos’ decisions to thrice penalize Serena Williams in the U.S. Open Final alone are a damning indictment of tennis’s racist past and present while the umpire’s antics were just the most recent examples of structural, institutional and interpersonal sexism and racism directed at Williams throughout her career.
In the next game, Williams would swiftly defeat Osaka to close the gap to 5-4. Before the following and final game, ESPN would show a shot of the normally steely Serena Williams weeping and struggling to control her breaths.
Osaka, who won the match after defeating Williams in the next game, burst into tears, not jubilance, after the match point. She would hide her face with her visor and towel.
In a moment that should have been pure bliss for Osaka, having just defeated the athlete she admired most, Osaka instead felt the pain Ramos inflicted on Williams. Osaka stood next to Williams during the trophy ceremony, crying as boos rained down even though she had just outplayed her hero. The trauma felt by her idol was also felt by Osaka herself, tainting what should have been an opportunity for Osaka to reclaim and own her dueling identities — as Japanese, as black and as American.
“Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka told The New York Times prior to the match. “Just the fact that it is happening, I’m very happy about it.”
Perhaps the most representative photograph of the tournament was captured by Chang W. Lee, a photographer for The New York Times, shows Williams and Osaka sobbing next to each other during the trophy ceremony. This is how tennis treats black women.
It did not matter that both finalists were black. It did not matter that the competitors played in a stadium named after a black man and in a tennis complex named after a lesbian woman who fought for equal pay. Ultimately, the powers that Williams needed to plead with — Ramos, Early, Kelso and even the institution of tennis itself — were white. Williams, despite her thousands of hours training, immense talent, sterling pedigree could not triumph over the whiteness embedded in her profession.
Arthur Ashe Stadium, despite its namesake, was never designed to crown players like Williams and Osaka as champions.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 10 print edition.
Email Sayer Devlin at [email protected]