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Naomi Osaka was just two years old when Serena Williams beat the world’s highest-ranked women’s tennis player, Martina Hingis, to win her first US Open title in 1999. Since then, Naomi has watched her idol conquer the tennis world with 22 more Grand Slams, the four most important annual tennis events – the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open. On Saturday, September 8, the now 20-year-old Naomi stunned the world by winning the 2018 Women’s US Open Singles Championship, stopping Serena’s quest to achieve her 24th Grand Slam title and tying with Australia's Margaret Court for the all-time record. Naomi’s first Grand Slam victory was particularly sweet given that she is the first Japanese tennis player to achieve this honor.
Naomi’s tennis career is not only inspired by that of her idol but it also eerily similar. Born in Osaka, Japan to a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian-American father, Leonard "San" François, Naomi moved to the United States when she was just three. After watching the Williams sisters at the 1999 French Open, Naomi's father became motivated to expose Naomi, and her older sister Mari, to tennis. Just like Serena’s dad, and first coach, Richard Williams, François knew little about the game. But that did not deter him. Armed with DVD’s and instructional books, he took both girls to the neighborhood tennis courts and made them hit several buckets of balls daily. In 2006, the family moved from Long Island to Pembroke Pines, Florida, where the homeschooled girls spent their days practicing on the public courts. By 2013, Naomi had developed into a top-rate tennis player and was ready to turn professional. Afraid that the budding athlete would not receive enough support from the United States Tennis Association, her father decided to sign her up with the Japanese Tennis Association.
Naomi caught the world’s attention at the age of sixteen after defeating former US Open champion Samantha Stosur at the 2014 Bank of the West Classic. She reached her first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) finals two years later at the 2016 Toray Pan Pacific Open, and in 2017, beat defending champion Angelique Kerber in the first round of the U.S. Open. The young player has since won against numerous tennis legends including Maria Sharapova, Karolína Plíšková and current world number one ranked player, Simona Halep.
Her first major WTA victory came in March 2018, when she beat Russia’s Daria Kasatkina to grab the biggest title outside of the Grand Slams – the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. A few weeks later, Naomi made headlines again when she defeated her idol Serena Williams in the first round of the 2018 Miami Open. However, many experts attributed the win to the fact that Serena, who had just returned to competitive tennis following an 8-month-long maternity break, was still working to get back to top form.
While Naomi’s second, decisive two-set victory against her idol at the 2018 US Open proved that her first win was not a fluke, it was overshadowed by a dispute between Serena and umpire Carlos Ramos. The issues began during the second set when Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was caught giving her hand signals. Since coaching players at major tournaments is not allowed, Ramos slapped Serena with a code violation. Claiming she had not seen the gesture, Serena took offense at being accused of “cheating” and asked Carlos to reconsider his decision. Shortly after, frustrated at losing her serve in the fifth game of the second set, Serena smashed her racket – drawing a second code violation that cost her a point.
When the next game started with Naomi ahead 15-0, an irate Serena asked Carlos to consider reversing the first code violation. She asserted, ‘‘I have never cheated in my life! You owe me an apology.’’ When the umpire refused to retract his stance, an emotional Serena screamed, “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.’’ Carlos responded to the accusation by issuing her a third code violation – this one for verbal abuse – costing Serena an entire game! Naomi, who was already winning the second set 4-3, was suddenly ahead by two games. When he called the confused players to explain the reason for the change in score, a stunned Serena laughed in disbelief and demanded to speak to the tournament referee Brian Earley, who walked onto the court along with a Grand Slam supervisor. Serena’s claim that the umpire’s decisions was unfair and complaint that ‘‘this has happened to me too many times,’’ fell on deaf ears. While she continued to play and even won a game, Serena never fully recovered from the altercation, and soon after, the tournament was over.
Naomi’s first major win was spoiled by the crowd booing at the umpire’s decisions. While Serena managed to calm the fans down, it did little to cheer the shy player, who, instead of celebrating her success, apologized for her victory saying,” I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Unnerving as the experience was, Naomi is still in complete awe of her idol, and says, “I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love.” Given her tennis prowess and Serena’s relentless quest to stay at the top of her game, we have no doubt the two champions will meet on the court many more times – hopefully under more “normal” circumstances.
Resources: learningvoanews,com,scmp.com,bostonglobe.com,espn.com, wikipedia.org