‘Shy and humble’ Osaka deserves her moment in the spotlight
Williams row took gloss off a prodigy realising a dream against her idol
While the fallout from Serena Williams’s on-court meltdown continued on Sunday morning, her conqueror Naomi Osaka was standing in an elegant white dress on the observation deck of New York’s Rockefeller Centre, and posing for photographers with the US Open trophy.
It must have been a bittersweet feeling to dream about beating Williams in a major final for your whole life, and then to find that the crowd erupted in boos when you stepped up on to the podium to receive your prize.
Osaka had to pull her cap down over her face to hide her tears, as Williams – who was also crying – put an arm around her shoulders and said: “I don’t want to be rude. I just want to tell you guys that she played well and this is her first grand slam. Let’s make this the best moment we can, let’s not boo any more.”
Although she plays under the rising-sun flag, Osaka – whose father Francois comes from Haiti – spent much of her childhood in the US and is not seen as a native Japanese through and through. Yet her understated mien is in keeping with that culture, as is her natural politeness. In this unusual situation, she found herself apologising to the crowd for having beaten their favourite.
Later, in the interview room, she wept again when she was asked why she had felt the need to do that. “Your question is making me emotional,” she said. “Because I know that she really wanted to have the 24th grand slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
You would need a hard heart not to feel for Osaka, who unwittingly found herself at the centre of what Sports Illustrated yesterday called “the ugliest finish in grand-slam history”.
All she had done was to play scintillating tennis, not only striking the ball with pace and poise but also maintaining her mental focus as all hell broke loose around her. It was an extraordinary feat from a 20-year-old who has long been seen as potentially the finest player of her generation.
Osaka dropped just a single set during her run to the trophy – in her fourth-round meeting with another fast-rising prospect in Aryna Sabalenka – and her combination of athleticism and easy power was reminiscent of a young Williams. Perhaps this is no coincidence, because her father Francois brought her and sister Mari up in conscious imitation of the way Richard Williams had trained his own daughters more than 15 years earlier.
Saturday’s final is likely to be a difficult experience for Osaka to compute. Achieving a long-held goal can bring an emptiness with it at the best of times, let alone when the whole experience is tarnished by factors outside your control. But while it will take some time for everyone to digest Saturday’s events, the bottom line is that Osaka is a magnificent player. She should shortly be a very rich one as well, given the wealth of the Japanese market. She already has sponsorship deals with Adidas, Yonex and Nissin noodles, while suitors will be clamouring to take over the clothing deal which expires at the end of the season.
“She is very honest and down to earth, a little bit shy and humble, and people are relating to that,” said Osaka’s agent, the California-based Scotsman Stuart Duguid, who works with IMG and now finds himself handling one of the most valuable accounts in the game.
“The family are loyal and hardworking people who put everything into their daughter. The mother was working full-time until nine months ago in an office job with Mitsubishi in Miami. They live in Boca Raton [Florida] so she would drive an hour and a half each way, come back home and work on her daughter’s stuff – an incredible work ethic.”
There is so much to admire about this new face on the grand-slam scene. Once the fuss over Williams dies down, Osaka’s US Open victory will be recognised as the magnificent achievement it is.
- © The Daily Telegraph