A broken racket. Accusations of cheating and sexism. A $17,000 fine.
The women’s singles finals at the 2018 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, held this past Saturday at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City, was chock-full of controversy. The highly anticipated showdown between American veteran-slash-legend Serena Williams and relatively unknown youngster Naomi Osaka of Japan didn’t end as expected—on many fronts.
For one, Williams, the 36-year-old, six-time U.S. Open champion, lost 6-2, 6-4 to 20-year-old Osaka, who was playing in her first ever Grand Slam final match. On top of that, Williams walked away with two penalties and a hefty fine for three counts of alleged misconduct, including a coaching violation, racquet abuse, and verbal abuse towards an umpire. Williams fought back against the penalties, claiming sexist double standards, and the stadium rallied behind her, booing incessantly both during the finals and into the awards ceremony.
Yet buried beneath the controversy is the remarkable story of Osaka, the Japanese-born athlete who idolized Williams from a young age, and despite the drama, played phenomenally—and with composure—throughout the tournament. Here, six things to know about the talented new champion.
1. She’s the first ever Grand Slam singles champ from Japan.
Osaka’s victory marks the first time that a Japanese-born tennis player—man or woman—has won a singles Grand Slam championship, according to the BBC. The feat earned her a congratulatory tweet from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and also boosted her world ranking from 19th to seventh, an all-time career best.
2. Though Saturday marked her first time appearing in a Grand Slam final, she isn’t new to the pro tennis circuit.
According to Bleacher Report, Osaka went pro at age 15 in 2013, and in the five years since, she has racked up several notable career highlights. In 2016, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) designated her “Newcomer of the Year” after a “breakthrough season” in which she reached the third round of the Australian Open, the French Open, and the U.S. Open, raising her world ranking from 203 in 2015 to 40 in 2016. This past March, Osaka won the Indian Wells WTA title, which, according to the BBC, is widely known as the “fifth major” in tennis.
3. Osaka’s dream since childhood was to play against Williams in a Grand Slam final—she even wrote a school report on the legend.
Osaka, born October 16, 1997, was not even 2 years old when Williams won her first U.S. Open singles title in 1999. As a tennis player growing up in New York and then Boca Raton, Florida (her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 3, per The New York Times), Osaka dreamed of one day competing against Williams in a majors final. In third grade, she even wrote a school report about her idol, according to The Wall Street Journal. And after Osaka defeated Madison Keys in the U.S. Open semifinals, she said she been daydreaming during the match of getting the chance to play Williams, The Wall Street Journal reports.
So when the time came to actually go racket-to-racket against Williams, Osaka struggled to aptly describe the surreal experience.
"It's a little bit crazy," she said, according to the BBC. "Growing up and watching people you idolize, you always dream that one day you'll be in that position, so to be in that position right now…”
4. She calmed pre-match nerves by looking at French pastries.
Before Saturday’s match, Osaka was a ball of nerves, per the BBC.
"I couldn't eat anything, I felt like I was going to throw up,” Osaka said. “I was just so stressed and I kept calling my sister, my poor sister.” (Osaka’s older sister, Mari Osaka, is also a tennis player). “ She was telling me to think of it as just another match and then I would yell at her, 'Are you crazy? This is a Grand Slam final.'”
Though Mari, who was in Paris at the time, couldn’t provide IRL support, she found another way to comfort her sister. “She was showing me these random croissants and baguettes to try to take my mind off of it, and it kind of worked,” said Osaka.
5. Viewers praised Osaka for her composure and humility during Saturday’s heated match.
During the awards ceremony, as the crowds continued booing the tournament’s unexpected outcome, Osaka turned the spotlight back toward Williams.
“I know that everyone was cheering for her [Williams] and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” she said, as she was awarded the winner’s trophy. “I just wanted to say thank you for watching the match.”
6. She’s still deciding what she wants to do with her $3.8 million in prize money.
According to the WTA, Osaka has earned more than $7 million in prize money during her pro career, which includes $5.7 million in the past year—and a cool $3.8 million from the U.S. Open alone.
When asked in a post-tournament press conference if she was going to buy herself anything with the latest (and biggest) batch of prize money, Osaka said, "I'm not really the type that spends money on myself." She continued: "For me, as long as my family's happy, I'm happy. So when I see my sister…for me, that's the biggest gift."