Didn't really feel that real: Osaka

On top of the world

By Agencies
  • Published 10.09.18
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The morning after defeating Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka with the trophy at Rockefeller Center in New York. (AFP)

New York: The killer instinct that carried Japan's Naomi Osaka to a first Grand Slam title evaporated as she hugged her idol Serena Williams after beating her in a controversial US Open final.

Osaka said it wasn't the ire of the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd - angered at penalties meted out to Serena - but just the realization that she had robbed the US great who inspired her career of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title.

"I know that she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam," said Osaka, who choked up again trying to explain her feelings.

"When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person, right? Then 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."

Osaka, 20, looked nothing like a kid as she took the court aiming to become Japan's first Grand Slam winner.

Undaunted by the massive pro-Serena crowd - extra noisy with the Ashe stadium roof closed because of rain - she broke Serena twice for a quick 4-1 lead in the opening set, displaying the kind of powerful ground game and dominant serve that have made Serena herself a star.

She had locked up the first in style with a blistering service winner when Serena was incensed by a code violation warning for receiving coaching from her box in the second game of the second set.

Although Serena would take a 3-1 lead in the set, the accusation festered, and soon a violation for racquet abuse cost her a point while a third for verbal abuse cost her a game.

"I didn't know what was going on, I was just trying to focus. Since it was my first Grand Slam final, I did not want to get overwhelmed," Osaka said.

"Serena came to the bench and told me she had a point penalty and when she got the game penalty I didn't know that either. I was just trying to focus on myself at that time," Osaka said.

A somewhat muted reaction to her history-making victory had nothing to do with the late-match chaos, Osaka said.

Kei Nishikori is the only other Japanese player to reach a Grand Slam final, and he couldn't take the last step, falling to Marin Cilic in the 2014 US Open men's final.

"To have a huge reaction isn't really me in the first place," she said.

"It just still didn't really feel that real." Osaka, who earned $3.8 million (3.29 million Euros) for the victory, said her next goal was a simple one: to win her next tournament in Tokyo.

Asked if she was prepared for the reception she'll receive as the country's first Grand Slam winner, Osaka said: "Apparently not, because people keep asking me that."

The 20-year-old, who was born in Japan but raised in the US, said after the match: "I know everyone was cheering for her and I'm sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match."

Osaka said it was "always my dream to play Serena in the US Open finals," and that, "I'm really grateful I was able to play with you."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated Osaka on Twitter and thanked her for "giving Japan a boost of inspiration at this time of hardship" -- a likely reference to the earthquake that hit the northern island of Hokkaido on Thursday, killing at least 21 people.

Kei Nishikori, who lost in the men's semi-finals to Novak Djokovic and was runner-up in 2014, posted a video of Osaka lifting the US Open trophy on his Twitter page along with the hashtag #proud and a Japanese flag.

Tennis is nowhere near as popular as baseball, soccer or sumo in Japan, and the match was broadcast live only on the Wowow cable channel, not on any major television channel.

But as Osaka prepared to face Serena in Saturday's final, local media began to contemplate what victory might mean.

The Yomiuri newspaper said: "The combination of her strength and childlike innocence is her charm," and hailed Osaka as "a new heroine Japan can be proud of."

Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, is also helping break new ground in Japan as her biracial identity challenges the country's self-image as a racially homogenous society.

Osaka is the latest biracial athlete to enter the limelight in Japan following sprinter Asuka Cambridge and baseball player Yu Darvish.

Osaka left Japan when she was three and was raised in New York and Florida. She holds both Japanese and American citizenship and addresses fans on camera in broken Japanese - which has helped win over the public here.

Asked how she stayed so calm on court, Naomi was humble: "I think when I go on the court I sort of become a different person. Today, I was thinking that I have this really amazing opportunity to play against one of the greatest players and I really shouldn't take this chance for granted. I should just fight for everything and never get upset because that would be so disrespectful."