Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and One Last Shared U.S. Open
A little more than 24 hours had passed since Serena Williams captivated Arthur Ashe Stadium with her opening-round triumph and bedazzled tennis dress, wrap and hair, and now it was Naomi Osaka’s turn.
A year ago, with Williams sidelined with a hamstring injury, Osaka had brought so much heat to the U.S. Open, even before her third-round loss led her to announce that she needed to step away from tennis because it brought her so little joy and so much sadness, even if the sport had allowed her to eclipse Williams as the highest-paid female athlete.
Now, for what she says is the last time, Williams is back, and once more, these two megastars that transcend their sport are connected, just as they have been since a fireworks-filled final at Ashe four years ago evolved into both a torch-passing and a moment that has linked them through their careers.
Osaka, who lost to the 19th-seeded Danielle Collins, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in a match that bled into early Wednesday morning, is struggling to get out of a prolonged slump as she battles nagging injuries and could not reclaim her magic the way Williams did Monday night.
“This is what makes you great, being able to win matches like this even if it’s in the first round,” Osaka said after coming up short.
The loss meant a second consecutive premature exit from a tournament that once looked like it would be her grandest stage for years, and it happened despite all those connections she embraced over the past week to the role model she still reveres, who will be back in the spotlight Wednesday night.
“I’m a product of what she’s done,” Osaka said Saturday in her pretournament news conference. “I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family.”
Like everything else at this tournament, Osaka’s match seemed peripheral to Serena Williams’s narrative, even if Osaka’s loss had its own significance. At the moment, Osaka is more famous than she is successful at the game that gave her stardom, which could become a problem if those two phenomena do not align soon, and now she will have to do it without her tennis guidepost on tour with her.
Since Williams delivered her intentionally vague announcement that she would stop playing competitive tennis at some point after this U.S. Open, few players — perhaps even, few people — have taken the news as hard or tried to collect these last morsels of Williams’s professional tennis life as much as Osaka has.
Sensing that end might not be far-off, Osaka cried as she watched Williams’s first match in Toronto earlier this month at the National Bank Open, and she cheered Williams on during her first-round match at the Western and Southern Open in Ohio the following week.
It was similar to how she felt after she beat Williams in the semifinals of the Australian Open last year, a loss that caused Williams to break down during her news conference and end it after just a few questions. At the time, Osaka sensed that was the last time Williams was going to play in Australia.
Assuming Williams keeps her word, Osaka’s intuition will have aged well once more. The morning after the first-round Toronto match, Williams’s announcement in Vogue that the end was imminent hit Osaka hard.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ this is what devastation must feel like,” Osaka said of what she felt as she read the news. “It really is an honor just to keep watching her play.”
Osaka was watching once more Monday night. She donned a baseball cap and a pair of round glasses and sat roughly 20 rows up from the court, even to the baseline, in the front row of a corporate box but in the open air, with fans passing in the aisle within an arm’s length of her.
Coco Gauff, another young Black player who has credited Williams’s career with providing inspiration and a road map for her own path in tennis, was in the stands as well. Gauff, who had won her first-round match Monday afternoon, had planned to watch Williams’s match on television, but changed her mind, deciding she did not want to miss the moment dedicated to the woman who had given her belief.
“It made me feel that I could do it,” she said Monday of learning about how Williams and her sister Venus had grown up poor in Compton, Calif., and broken into what had been an overwhelmingly white sport. “I hope that somebody can look at me and say that I feel like I can do it because she did it.”
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, is a Japanese national, but, like Williams, she grew up largely as a Black woman in America, but their links go far beyond that.
Like Williams, Osaka was largely coached by her father, who has spoken of copying the playbook Richard Williams essentially wrote for creating female champions. Osaka also has an older sister who played professional tennis; Mari Osaka, 26, retired last year.
For much of their childhoods, Mari was the better player, though Naomi appeared to have a higher ceiling because of her speed, just as Serena Williams did. The first mountain each had to climb was getting good enough to play with and then beat their older sisters.
Like Williams, Naomi Osaka has not been shy about speaking out on social justice issues, especially in 2020, following a series of police killings and shootings of Black people. Both have been unafraid to take on the tennis establishment.
They played each other five times. Osaka won three of the matches, most memorably the 2018 U.S. Open final, when an overmatched Williams was penalized for receiving coaching and ended up in an ugly dispute with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. Osaka ended up in tears during the trophy ceremony as the crowd howled at the outcome.
That was the first of Osaka’s four Grand Slam singles titles. It was the second of the four finals Williams lost while on the precipice of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles championships.
Williams has not won any Grand Slam singles titles since then. Osaka has won three more, including the 2020 U.S. Open, and was on the cusp of taking the torch from Williams and full control of the sport until her struggles with mental health prevented her from playing all but a few matches during the last six months of 2021.
This April, she made the final of the Miami Open, her best result since her comeback began in January, but battled an Achilles’ tendon injury that derailed her preparation for the French Open and forced her to pull out of Wimbledon.
After a few hard-fought losses this summer, Osaka badly wanted to play into the later rounds of the U.S. Open, and she came out on fire, lacing serves and forehands and digging balls out of the corners as she sprinted to an early 3-0 lead, looking like the Osaka of two years ago. But Collins quickly matched every ounce of Osaka’s power and proved just a little bit sharper, and maybe a bit luckier in the crucial first-set tiebreaker. She floated a desperate lob that caught the back of the baseline and knuckled a mis-hit service return that Osaka could not handle to clinch the set.
In the second set, Osaka took another early lead only to succumb to another rush from Collins, as her forehand grew a little too loose on a night with so little margin for error. Collins gambled with big swings that paid off more often than not, and more often than Osaka’s gambles did. With Collins serving for the match, Osaka had two shots to get back on serve but couldn’t find the winners she needed and sent a backhand long to give Collins the match.
“I just have to chill a little bit,” Osaka said while the loss was still raw. “There’s a lot of random chaos in my head right now.”
She paused a slow walk off the court and an early departure from the tournament to sign some courtside autographs.
Then it was over, and the tournament spotlight was back on Williams once more.