Japanese and women’s tennis fans around the world have a new hero: Naomi Osaka, winner of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open tennis championship. Osaka is the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam title but her stunning victory has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the treatment of Serena Williams, her opponent in the final. Osaka deserves better — the attention rightly belongs on her — but the match itself was a reminder of the double standards that mark women’s sports and the behavior expected of women in society more generally.
Osaka, a 20-year-old biracial — her mother is Japanese, her father a Haitian — rising star on the tennis circle, outplayed Williams, her rival and her idol. She has had a meteoric career: She turned professional at 15, made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open in 2016 (where she lost in her third match), was named the Women Tennis Association’s “Newcomer of the Year” in 2016, and claimed her first WTA title in March 2018 at Indian Wells. She is currently ranked 19 on the women’s tour, although she was ranked 17th in July.
Last weekend’s final was not Osaka’s first match against Williams. She defeated Williams earlier this year, when Williams was just returning to the sport after giving birth to her daughter. This time, however, Osaka flat-out outplayed the 23-time Grand Slam winner. During her 6-2, 6-4 victory, she made just 14 unforced errors, converted four of five break point opportunities and saved five of six break points she faced. She outserved Williams — her fastest was clocked at 190.4 kph — with 73 percent first serves and, with deadly precision, returned every shot that Williams made.
Equally important was her poise and demeanor. She neither gave into the nerves — playing against her idol on her adopted hometown’s biggest stage — nor was distracted by the controversy that surrounded the match. The drama began when chair umpire Carlos Ramos penalized Williams for getting signals from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, at 1-1 in the second set. Williams challenged the call, forcefully and emotionally arguing that she was not a cheater. (Mourtaglou later admitted that he was coaching but added that all coaches do it — including Osaka’s — and that Williams never actually looked at him.)
The situation escalated four games later, when Williams smashed her racket in frustration after Osaka broke her serve. Ramos gave Williams a point penalty — justified under WTA and Grand Slam rules as the second code violation of the match — but Williams was angered, as she thought Ramos had taken back the cheating warning. Two games later, during a changeover with Osaka ahead 4-2 in the second set, Williams argued with Ramos, demanding an apology from him for “stealing” a point from her and insisting that “I have never cheated in my life.” When Williams called him a “thief,” Ramos gave her a third code violation for verbal abuse, which awarded a game penalty to Osaka that left her a game from the title.
Williams is no stranger to controversy. In 2004, she received an apology from the USTA after a poorly called third set by chair umpire Mariana Alves contributed to her quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati. In 2009, Williams threatened to shove a ball down the throat of a line judge after she was called for a foot fault during her semifinal match. But in this case, she was wronged. Coaches regularly provide advice from the stands, but penalties are rarely, if ever, imposed. Tennis officials — and even Ramos himself — have been called far worse than “thief” by male tennis players and have been hit with much lighter punishment — if at all.
There is no disputing the double standard that exists in the sport and former players of both sexes were quick to point it out. Ramos did not have to respond as he did. He could have given her a soft penalty for slamming the racket and defused the situation. Instead he imposed the maximum penalty and the match deteriorated. As Billie Jean King, the 39-time Grand Slam champion, tweeted after the match, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions.” Japan’s women athletes — and its women in general — are well acquainted with such unequal treatment.
This controversy has overshadowed a remarkable performance and deprived Osaka of credit she rightly deserves. Rather than being celebrated for an exceptional performance in the most testing of circumstances, Osaka was almost an afterthought in an event that has assumed larger-than-life dimensions. And if this match is to be plumbed for its social significance, Japan should ponder the meaning of this exceptional athlete. In a country in which 2 percent of all births are to biracial couples, Japan needs to better appreciate its diversity and the richness and opportunity it creates. We hope that Osaka gives us many more opportunities to think about this issue as she continues her outstanding career.