Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2018

Naomi Osaka Deserved Better

The only point on which there is general agreement is that the women’s final at the US Open didn’t have to end the way it did. That a taut and compelling generational showdown that was tilting clearly in favor of youth descended quickly and fully into chaos and controversy was neither preordained nor unavoidable. Yet that is what came to pass, and in the aftermath of the tennis match turned train wreck on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday afternoon, commentators and fans have been busy assigning blame.

For those who may have missed it, this year’s final featured 36-year-old Serena Williams against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who grew up idolizing and emulating her opponent. Although the draw suggested this was an unlikely championship matchup, with Williams seeded 17th and Osaka 20th, the numbers were deceiving.

Almost exactly a year after giving birth to her first child and subsequently suffering nearly fatal complications, Williams has finally worked herself back into top form, but her ranking still reflects her long absence from the game. If her run to the women’s final at Wimbledon two months earlier, where she lost to Angelique Kerber, was a surprise, her dominance at Flushing Meadows, where in her first six matches she dropped just a single set, was not. Throughout the fortnight Williams appeared totally focused on her drive to match Margaret Court with twenty-four Grand Slam titles.

Osaka’s trip through the draw was equally dominant, with just one set lost during her fourth-round triumph over Aryna Sabalenka. Osaka, who was born in Japan and who moved with her family to the United States at the age of three, is having a breakthrough year, rising quickly in the rankings. She began 2018 ranked 68th before advancing to the fourth round at the Australian Open, the quarterfinals at the Dubai Tennis Championships, and then scoring her first WTA victory at Indian Wells in March. Later that month she defeated her idol in straight sets at the Miami Open, although the tournament was just the fourth outing for Williams since her return to competition.

Both players rely on enormous power, with the younger Osaka also able to cover the court with great speed. Rare among even the top women players, her forehand is frequently clocked at more than a hundred miles per hour. As the match began she was also extremely composed for a player in her first Grand Slam final. Instead it was Williams who began tentatively, dropping the first two points on an unforced error and a double fault before rallying to hold her serve. But the six-time US Open titlist was not so fortunate in her next two service games. Osaka broke her both times while holding her own serve to race out to a 5-1 lead. Williams prolonged the inevitable for one game, but in just over half an hour the young underdog had claimed the first set, 6-2.

It was early in the second set that the slide into chaos began. In the second game chair umpire Carlos Ramos announced a code violation against Williams when he saw her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making hand signals at her from his seat in the stands. USTA rules prohibit coaching from the stands during a match. Interviewed after the match Mouratoglou admitted he was coached but said all coaches do, an assertion that was not disputed by the former players and analysts working the ESPN broadcast. Then after finally breaking Osaka to take the lead in the set, Williams played a particularly poor service game, going from 30-15 to a dropped game with back-to-back double faults followed by an unforced error. Frustrated and angry, Williams slammed her racket onto the court. Racket abuse – yes, it’s really called that – is a mandatory code violation, which Ramos announced. The penalty for a second violation is loss of a point, meaning Osaka, having just brought the set back on serve, began her own service game up 15-0.

During the next changeover a seething Williams proceeded to berate Ramos. Upset by the coaching violation’s implication that she was cheating, she demanded that the umpire apologize. When he demurred, Williams screamed that Ramos had stolen a point from her, calling him a thief. As she began to walk back to the baseline Ramos announced a third violation for abuse of an official, which gave Osaka a game and made the score 5-3 in favor of the youngster. Williams pleaded her case to the tournament referee and the Grand Slam supervisor to no avail, and two games later Naomi Osaka had her first Grand Slam title.

The award ceremony began with boos raining down on the court from the capacity crowd, and tears ran down the face of a sad looking Osaka. To her credit, when interviewed during the ceremony Williams asked for the booing to stop, but the damage was done. Osaka tried to cut her own interview short, saying in response to the first question about her childhood dream of playing against Williams, “I’m gonna sort of defer, I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match, thank you.”

In a world that looks for easy answers to every question, where every conflict must have a hero and a villain, most commentary has been highly critical of Ramos, much of it suggesting that either sexism or racism was a motive. In her Washington Post column, Sally Jenkins displayed a supernatural ability to read the umpire’s mind, writing that Ramos assessed the penalties “all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.” Absent some personal history with Ramos that would allow her to understand his thoughts, Jenkins, not normally a lazy writer, simply assigns a motive that neatly fits her narrative.

But a more nuanced view suggests that there is plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco in Flushing. A good amount surely falls on Ramos. The 47-year-old from Portugal is notoriously strict, but he is also a highly regarded official, having worked the final at three of the four women’s Grand Slams, all four of the men’s and the gold medal men’s singles match at the 2012 Olympics. But even a good umpire can have a bad day, and Saturday certainly qualified as one for Ramos. In any sport the officials have two paramount tasks – keep control of the contest and do so while remaining, to the greatest extent possible, invisible. Ramos failed badly at both. In the first instance, given that the coaching rule is by all accounts widely ignored and seldom penalized, he could have told Williams to advise Mouratoglou to stop his signaling. Similarly, when she let loose with her tirade he could have told her that she was in danger of crossing a line, giving Williams the chance to calm down.

Though had he done so, it’s not at all clear that she would have listened. Williams has always played with great passion, but this is not the first time in her storied career that she has let her emotions get the better of her. What some are trying to spin as taking a stand for women was nothing more than an out of control temper tantrum in a match she was losing. Williams has had many fine moments both on and off the court that have made her a role model for young players and a powerful voice for gender and racial equality. Her championship match meltdown was not one of them.

Nor does the USTA go unscathed. The women’s tournament began with controversy over an absurd rule banning female players from changing their shirts on court. Since the coaching restriction is thoroughly ignored but rarely results in a penalty, it should be dropped as quickly as the clothing one was.

The chaos on the court left Osaka, the day’s one true victim, looking forlorn at what should have been her moment of great triumph. What has been quickly lost in the controversy is the fact that Osaka was simply the better player. She had more aces, fewer double faults, a higher first serve percentage, fewer unforced errors, more break points won, and more receiving points won, all while covering more ground than Williams. Most important, unlike her opponent, Osaka never lost her focus. She is the fifth youngest woman to win the Open, and the first native of Japan to win any Grand Slam title. Any tears that Naomi Osaka shed should have been of joy. For all who robbed her of that, shame on them.

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Responses

  1. This is by far the best summation of this event I’ve read all day. You’re right about Sally Jenkins column. It was lazy, predictable and basically unfair. Serena has had a great career, but she tarnished herself in this match. Instead of losing with class and dignity, she acted selfishly and entitled.
    But Osaka has a great career ahead of her, and should be able to put these events behind her someday.
    Nicely done, as always.
    -Bill

    • Thanks so much Bill. I agree, Osaka showed through her steely calm that she has all the mental toughness needed to win many titles. And her tennis game isn’t bad, either! Hope all is well with you. Even though you are well inland, stay safe!

      Thanks,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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