French baguettes help Naomi Osaka fight off nerves in US Open final against Serena Williams

Three minutes before going out on court Osaka had a video conversation on her phone with her 22-year-old sister, Mari, in an attempt to calm her nerves

Paul Newman
Flushing Meadows
Sunday 09 September 2018 16:40
Serena Williams says she is sticking up for women's rights following a heated Umpire Exchange at the US Open

Even in the chaos that engulfed Arthur Ashe Stadium as Serena Williams exploded during the women’s singles final here on Saturday, Naomi Osaka appeared to be a picture of calm.

When she served out to complete her 6-2, 6-4 victory over the 23-times Grand Slam champion you would hardly have guessed that this was a 20-year-old on the brink of her first Grand Slam title and about to give Japan its first Grand Slam singles champion. At 30-15 Osaka served an ace and on her second match point she hit another big serve which Williams was unable to return.

It was not the first time that Osaka had appeared nerveless here – in the semi-finals against Madison Keys she saved all 13 break points she had to face – but as the new champion sat at a table in the player lounge here on Saturday night she revealed how she had been a bag of nerves going into the final.

Three minutes before going out on court Osaka had a video conversation on her phone with her 22-year-old sister, Mari, who is also a tennis player, in an attempt to calm her nerves.

“She’s in Paris right now, so she was showing me these baguettes,” Osaka said. “She was just talking about random stuff. I think she was trying to get me to loosen up. It worked because for that split-second I did forget that I was about to play in the final. So I guess she finally did something as an older sister.”

The nerves had begun for Osaka after Thursday’s semi-finals as she looked ahead to what had been a childhood dream – to play Williams in a Grand Slam final.

“I couldn’t really sleep that well for the past two nights,” Osaka said. “This morning I woke up really early and I was sweating. I kept thinking I was going to throw up, so I couldn’t really eat lunch.

“For every one of my matches I’ve always felt nervous, but this one for sure was way more nerve-racking than any other.

“I didn’t tell anyone that I was nervous. The only person that I told was my sister. I called her in the morning and then I called her at lunchtime and then I called her again three minutes before I was supposed to walk on the court. I was calling her a lot, like 24/7.”

She added: “I think it’s funny that you say that I don’t seem nervous, because I’m actually super-nervous all the time. I guess I’m a really good actor. Maybe I should go into acting.”

It was only after the end of the final that Osaka’s emotions came out. She was in tears at the end and at the presentation ceremony, where Williams put an arm around her.

Osaka's emotions came pouring out during the ceremony

“I was really overwhelmed,” she said. “Winning a Grand Slam was something that I had always dreamed about and it didn’t really feel real at that moment. I had so many emotions and Serena was being so nice to me. I just started crying a lot and I couldn’t stop.

“The thing that started making me cry was when she said she was proud of me. I couldn’t stop crying after that. Then I saw my mum and everyone in the box and it just kept getting worse.”

Osaka’s Haitian father, who decided he would like his daughters to take up tennis after watching Serena and Venus Williams playing doubles at the French Open, coached Naomi until three years ago. However, the new champion also paid tribute to her Japanese mother for the sacrifices she has made over the years.

“My mum was always working and she wouldn’t really see us practising or anything, unless it was on the weekends,” Osaka said. “I rarely saw my mum unless it was dinner time and then she would go and work. Just the fact that she’s here right now and she’s not working any more, it means a lot.”

Williams' outburst overshadowed Osaka's victory somewhat

Sascha Bajin, Osaka’s coach, said before the final that he loved her innocence. Does she think she will stay like that now that she is a Grand Slam champion?

“I’ve lived 20 years being this way, so I think I’ll carry on doing the same things,” she said. “I think for me it’s very hard not to be the way that I am. People say that other people changed [after becoming famous], but I don’t think that will happen to me, mainly because of the people that surround me.”

Asked why she had apologised to Williams for her victory during the presentation ceremony, the tears began to well up again. “Your question is making me emotional,” Osaka said. “She really wanted to win her 24th Grand Slam. Everyone knows this. It's on the commercials, it's everywhere.

“When I step on to the court, I feel like a different person. 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.”

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