Monday, September 10, 2018

Osaka deserved her dream, not controversy, in her 1st Grand Slam victory

In one of her news conferences during the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Naomi Osaka talked about her dream as a little girl of someday facing top-champion Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final. A reporter followed up and asked what outcome she saw for this match, in her dream. Osaka gave a shy smile before her answer: "I don't dream to lose."

I'm guessing her dream didn't include her pulling her visor over her face to shield her distraught and teary eyes from a chorus of boos that reigned down from the crowd after her first Grand Slam victory either.

But unfortunately, for everybody involved, that's exactly what happened to the 20-year-old as she beat the 23-time Slam champion Williams, 6-2, 6-4, Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in one of the most controversial tennis matches in recent U.S. Open history.

I didn't see the match live but instead followed the happenings on social media before watching a replay via a Tennis Channel rebroadcast (with commentators Mary Carillo and former tennis champion Lindsay Davenport) later that night. There was so much that happened, and the opinions flew around faster than a Williams ace. The code violations and exchanges between the chair umpire and Williams are well documented by now, including the $17,000 fine Williams received for her actions.

Osaka served up better tennis in this one
So let me first head in this direction: Osaka was the better player in the match. She became the first player from Japan to win a major singles tennis title and should be commended for her efforts and for her play throughout the tournament.

From the start of Saturday's final, Williams' serve was shaky. She opened the match with a double fault on the second point of the match and struggled with her first serve. The first-serve percentage in the first set was 73 percent for Osaka to just 38 percent for Williams. That's concerning if you're in the Williams camp, as a player who can put away entire games by acing opponents with her powerful serve.

Meanwhile, Osaka found a way to get her opponent on the run as she continued to hit punishing groundstrokes across to the other side. What might usually be winners for Williams turned into longer rallies as Osaka showed a solid return game and sent shots right back time and again during rallies. Osaka also had a streak of 21-straight break points saved that carried over from the previous match as well, a semifinal versus American Madison Keys.

The first set was controversy-free. Osaka got her first break of the match on a Williams double fault, took a 3-1 lead with an ace and then broke again. If Serena came into the net, Osaka calmly countered with passing shots. Her winner to make it 15-all with Osaka up 4-1 in the first set even drew some racquet-claps from Williams.

Osaka won the first set in 34 minutes with a serve that Williams buried in the net. While it certainly seemed to be going a different direction than many expected, I've watched enough three-set victories from Williams to know it wasn't over. Although, Tennis Channel pointed out to me that Williams was actually just 2-7 in major finals when she drops the first set.

The second set wasn't a highlight reel for tennis 
That was about the end of any normalcy in the match. In all, Williams received three code violations before the night was done. The first was a warning for coaching after her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, appeared to make a gesture with his hands from his seat in the stadium. The second took a point away from Williams after she busted her racquet. The third awarded a game to Osaka - which came at a pivotal time in the match with Osaka up 4-3 in the second set - following what was described as verbal abuse from Williams toward the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.

One of the things Williams mentioned repeatedly was that the chair umpire was a "thief" for stealing a point from her. What puzzled me about this is Williams was penalized a point for busting her racquet. That's on her, and that detail seems to have gotten lost. I understand the other part of the argument is, "Well, she shouldn't have been warned for coaching in the first place, so the racquet deal could have been a warning." But the fact was, she was already warned. Williams' coach also said after the match that he was coaching. And adding that every other coach does the same thing is filed under the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right category, in my opinion.

A couple calls - good or bad - does not a match make
Here's where I probably fall into some opinions that not many people share, but I'll try to explain my thoughts anyway.

There's plenty of debate that goes into the opinions of whether the chair should have imposed the violations. Whatever you think of them - right or wrong - it's my understanding that Ramos was within his rights to issue the violations and rules were followed on his end. You can be frustrated if there's a double standard when it comes to issuing violations, like for coaching, for example, while also respecting the rules of the game as they are. Plus, anytime there is anything that can be subjective and at the discretion of an umpire, things are not black and white. This isn't like challenging a line call where the replay shows whether the tennis ball clipped a line. The umpire still makes calls, so I get why that is frustrating if it seems to come from nowhere.

Another thing came to mind for me while I watched the match and the exchanges Williams had with Ramos. Sports are different and complex, depending on how you look at them. Officiating can play a big part in these contests, though the goal should never be to have officials determine an outcome. But still, bad calls happen all the time, and athletes have to find a way to move forward and often regain their composure. It didn't seem to me that Williams was able to move past the coaching violation. Of course, she has a right to feel upset or whatever she wants to feel, but agree with calls or not, you have to find a way to play on.

Carillo said via the broadcast that the coaching violation "could fuel" Williams. At the first changeover at 2-2 in the second set, Williams and Ramos appeared to come to some sort of understanding about the coaching issue. It could have all ended there.

It was interesting to watch this match later knowing the results. After the point penalty, Davenport, who played against Williams in her career, gave viewers a heads-up on the rules: "One more violation, and that's a game. She's got to keep her temper in check from here on out."
Osaka broke again with a down-the-line passing shot to take a 4-3 lead. And Williams offered up more discussion at the changeover, with continued efforts to demand an apology from Ramos, to no avail.

"How dare you insinuate that I was cheating," Williams told Ramos. "You will never ever ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live."
After the game violation was issued and the discussion continued with the tournament referee, Osaka was, well, I'm not really sure. She was presumably left to figure out what exactly was going on and how to keep a handle on her own composure for doing nothing to bring about this controversy. All she did was play a terrific match, Carillo said. Would it have been fair to Osaka if Ramos had decided not to issue any code violations to Williams?

Serving for the match up 5-4, Osaka started her final game with a winner and ended it with an ace to win her first Grand Slam title. But instead of jubilation, jumping up and down, a smile (though, of course, everyone celebrates differently), Osaka brought her visor bill down over her face to cover up her emotions. She then sobbed at her chair while Williams continued to demand an apology from Ramos and the fans kept up the chorus of boos.

Unpacking the issues, because this isn't black-and-white
Now that this is a long-winded piece, let me hit some of the bullet points because certain things are not mutually exclusive:
  • Do I think Williams, to use her word, cheated? No.
  • Do I think her coach was coaching? Yes, and he said so. 
  • Do I also think the rules surrounding coaching at major tournaments should be looked at for possible changes to avoid double standards? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos was within his rights to issue the code violations to Williams? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos used the best judgment when issuing the code violations? No, because the coaching one seems to be the most inconsistent across the rest of the tournament.
  • Do I think Williams was "robbed" of another title? No, because the match is longer than the one point and one game she was penalized.
  • Do I think Williams lost her cool during the match? Yes. 
  • Do I also think Williams recovered in her comments during the trophy ceremony? Yes. 
  • Do I think this is an issue of sexism? I'm honestly not sure, but many and the WTA think so.
To me, Williams understated the discussion in her postmatch news conference. "For me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark," Williams said, adding that they wouldn't do that to a male player.

That may be true. But it's only part of the story, because she already had two violations stacked up and had multiple discussions with Ramos. She didn't simply call him a thief and then he took a game away. And this isn't her first bit of controversy. The 2009 semifinal at the U.S. Open jumped into my head immediately. Kim Clijsters won the first set, and Williams was warned for racquet abuse. After Williams was called for a foot fault, she apparently said this to the linesperson: "If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat." The point penalty Williams received resulted in a second-set tiebreaker and match victory for Clijsters.

I wrote about that, too, and saw some similarities. Saturday while on the court, Williams made comments about things men have said during matches.

Here's an excerpt from what I wrote after that 2009 match against Clijsters:
In seeing the video of the exchange with the chair umpire, and tournament referee Brian Earley, I got an even better sense of how Serena felt about her actions. Her defense was simply this: "Sorry, but there are a lot of people who've said way worse."
How does that justify your own words and actions? Because others have done or said things, that should let you off the hook and free from penalties? It just doesn't seem like the best logic to me. Williams also got into it with the chair umpire during the 2011 U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur. So however you want to categorize it, these kinds of incidents aren't new to Williams.

There's no doubt that Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. I'm not denying her abilities and her status in American women's tennis. However, that doesn't mean her attitude and sportsmanship are above criticism. Maybe there was some sexism involved, but, for me, it's also hard to ignore that Williams has lost her temper before when she's down in a match.

Osaka deserved her moment
The biggest bottom line is that the whole deal was unfair to Osaka. The reality in women's tennis is that many players have been flashes in a pan the past couple of decades, except for the Williams sisters. If this is the only Grand Slam Osaka will ever win (and I'm not advocating for that), she's left with some tainted memories, and that's a shame. It's a moment she can't get back, just like Williams and Ramos can't take back their actions either.
It's such a shame that Osaka stood on that stage with an expression that looked like she lost the match. It was even more heartbreaking to hear her address the crowd and viewers with this:

"I know that everyone was cheering for her (Williams)," Osaka said. "I'm sorry it had to end like this."

Chin up, and go try to enjoy your Grand Slam title.

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