For those of us who enjoy sports because of the drama and the real life characters, there hasn’t been a better event in recent years than last weekend’s U.S. Open final. In one corner, there was Naomi Osaka, an emerging phenom who bulldozed through the tournament to make her first Grand Slam final. In the process, she won the hearts of many with her endearingly awkward and funny press conferences and post-match interviews that resonated with me in particular as a fellow mumbly weird person.
In the other, there was Serena Williams, looking for her first major win since giving birth and also looking to tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slams record. Serena is an incredible athlete, but a little harder to relate to, in that she’s just so damn good and has reached this level where she feels almost more like a god of tennis than a real person.
Osaka is a big fan of Williams and grew up watching her play. When Tom Rinaldo interviewed her after the semi-finals, she admitted what was driving her was that she really wanted to play Serena. That’s followed by one of my favorite sports interview moments in a long time: Rinaldi asks if she has any message to send to Serena, clearly teeing her up for some sort of controversial trash talk or at least friendly banter. Osaka freezes up a bit and just blurts out “I love you!” and then laughs as she realizes how weird it is that she just said that to her opponent.
Not exactly the most intimidating message to send, but that’s what makes Osaka special. And it set the stage for a final that I figured would be competitive, and also a lot of fun as we got to see Osaka take on her idol on one of the biggest stages imaginable. It didn’t quite work out like that. I couldn’t watch the match because I was going into work, and when I arrived, people had it on TV and they were doing the post-match ceremony, everyone was crying, the crowd was booing, I couldn’t tell who won, and the whole thing just looked like a mess.
I got informed that there was a lot of controversy, and later watched the video of Serena’s meltdown, which is really unlike almost anything I’ve seen in sports. Verbally abusing the officials is a time-honored tradition in all sports, but usually it’s a brief thing and then everyone moves on and keeps playing. This just kept on going for what felt like forever, and got increasingly heated and personal.
Serena’s actions have predictably become a lightning rod for takes and debate, mostly overshadowing the match itself. I still don’t really know what to make of it. My kneejerk reaction was that it felt like Serena was way out of line and unprofessional, and just from a standpoint of trying to win the match, she should have dropped it. But Serena is also in a situation I can’t even fathom: she’s an incredible athlete fighting for a huge win and feels like it’s not only being taken from her, but that her reputation is being maligned in the process. So that makes me empathize with her even if I can’t fully justify her actions. And then there’s this referee, who is getting abused by Serena for like 10 straight minutes when I feel like he was just trying to do his job. Maybe he sucks at his job and made a mistake, but does that warrant this type of reaction from a player? I have no idea about any of this. I just laugh at anyone who has a really confident take on what happened, because to me there are so many gray areas and nuances that it’s impossible to judge.
The only thing I’m confident about is that this was an ugly, bad thing that happened. And of course, Osaka was caught in the middle of it. I found the entire thing incredibly poignant from her perspective. She gets to play her hero, who she has put on this pedestal, and then stands across from the court as she has this really human, fallible moment where she just loses it. She beats her hero, but it doesn’t happen in the triumphant way she had imagined, as the match is just a backdrop for what’s happening between Serena and the official. Then she has this trophy celebration, a moment she’s dreamed of, and there’s boos and awkwardness, her hero is hugging her, telling the fans not to boo, and everything is just overwhelming and weird. I don’t know if there has been a more bittersweet moment in sports recently. I was simultaneously happy and heartbroken for her.
I feel even worse for Osaka when I realize that, deep down, I’m really enjoying all of this. The narrative dork in me can’t help but think that this is an amazing story that nobody would have ever written this way if it were fiction. A big reason why I love sports is that you get these really powerful, meaningful moments that surpass what the human imagination is capable of thinking of.