Serena Williams stole the headlines for all the wrong reasons following a bizarre US Open final, but one person stood proud through all the chaos: Naomi Osaka.
The Japanese star had a superlative tournament at Flushing Meadows, dropping just one set in her seven matches. This is an impressive feat, considering she faced a red hot Madison Keys in the semi-finals and managed to dispatch her in straight sets, saving an incredible 13 break points.
And her motivation during that intense display?
“This is gonna sound really bad, but I was just thinking, ‘I really wanna player Serena…’” quipped Osaka after the match.
Having moved to America at the age of three, Osaka – who has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father – grew up watching Williams notch up slam after slam with consummate ease, becoming her hero in the process.
In 2014, a 16-year-old Osaka finally got to meet her hero at her main-draw WTA Tour debut at the Bank of the West Classic. The young gun blushed as she posed for a selfie with her idol.
Naomi Osaka took these photos with her idol Serena Williams at the Bank of the West Classic in 2014. Now they will play for the 2018 US Open Title on Saturday. 😀🎾
(photos WTA, Bank of the West Classic FB) pic.twitter.com/JpEw0X4W0K
— LaWanda (@lawanda50) September 7, 2018
Fast forward to 2018 and following that semi-final victory, Osaka’s dream would be realised on the grandest stage, no matter the result: She would play Williams in a grand slam final.
Given her tender age of 20 and her first appearance in a grand slam final, one would have forgiven Oska for being a touch overwhelmed. However, she was anything but.
Osaka showed steely resolve on serve and took the opportunities given to her by an out-of-sorts Williams who recorded four double faults, to win the opening set. While that wasn’t in many pre-match scripts, what happened next was something no-one saw coming.
Like slow-motion car crash, Williams began to unravel early in the second set, seeming to switch her focus to berating chair umpire Carlos Ramos in a much publicised spat.
During the heated but often one-sided conversations, Osaka was a picture of solitude courtside, burying her head in her towel. One can only imagine the conflicting emotions running through her as her childhood hero lost her temper, broke her racquet, wagged her finger at Ramos and yelled at several officials as the ugly scene unfolded.
Play eventually restarted with Williams serving and she held to much applause from the 23 000 strong crowd. This left Osaka with arguably the most important service game of her short career, on a court full of tension and toxicity following Williams’ antics.
To her credit, Osaka held firm and served out the match to become Japan’s first ever grand slam winner.
But unfortunately for all concerned, the negativity spilled over into the post-match ceremony, which makes for particularly brutal watching no matter your opinion on events.
Under a chorus of boos from a boisterous New York crowd, a humble Osaka went on to apologise for winning.
“I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” said a teary Osaka.
Let’s try remember the 2018 US Open for a brilliant, history-making Osaka, who’s triumph is all the more impressive given the drama that took place.
"When I step on the court, I'm not a Serena fan – I'm just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again."
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) 9 September 2018