Serena Williams’s bid for a 24th major title collapsed in a welter of tears, angry accusation and code violations – even featuring a rare game penalty – as a series of furious rows with tournament officials overshadowed the maiden victory of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka.
For the first time ever at the US Open, the trophy ceremony was drowned out by boos when compere Tom Rinaldi stood up to take charge. Williams then dissolved into tears as she tried to bring some positivity to what was a desperately disappointing way for Osaka to open her grand-slam account.
“I don’t want to be rude. She played well. Let’s make this the best moment we can, let’s not boo any more,” said Williams.
Then it was Osaka’s turn, and she looked more devastated than delighted. She even wound up apologising for having beaten the crowd’s favourite in scenes that surely have little precedent in this or any other sport.
Osaka had just become the first major-winner from Japan, defying a hugely partisan crowd to close out a 6-2, 6-4 victory in just 79 minutes. But it will be the hostile scenes shared by Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos that most people will remember from this tempestuous final.
It wasn’t just Ramos, either. Williams broke into tears for first time as she confronted tournament referee Brian Earley late in the second set. “You know my character,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “This is not right.
“To lose a game for saying that, it’s not fair. How many other men do things? There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things. It’s because I am a woman, and that’s not right.” Williams also rounded on Donna Kelso, the supervisor for the Women’s Tennis Association, and told her “I’ve worked so hard to be in this position.”
This flashpoint came in response to the game penalty, which was the result of a third code violation during the match. The first had been handed out for coaching, after Ramos spotted Patrick Mouratoglou making hand signals from the Williams player’s box.
When the original violation was announced, Williams immediately charged up to Ramos to insist that she never takes coaching, and never cheats. The argument seemed to end there. But then, when she smashed a racket on being broken back for 3-3 in the second set, Ramos went by the book and gave her a point penalty.
Now Williams lost her temper – something that has happened twice before at the US Open. During the 2011 final, she accused chair umpire Eva Asderaki of being “a hater” and “ugly inside”.
And even before that, in 2009, her semi-final against Kim Clijsters ended in another point penalty after she told a lineswoman “If I could, I would take this —-ing ball and shove it down your —-ing throat.”
Last night, the major argument began with a reference to those earlier incidents. “Unbelievable, every time I play here, I have problems,” said Williams. “I did not get coaching, I don’t cheat. You need to make an announcement. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her. You owe me an apology.
“For you to attack my character is something that is wrong,” Williams continued. “You will never ever, ever be in another final. You are a liar.” Then, when she called Ramos a “thief” for taking away a point from her, he gave her a code violation for verbal abuse, resulting in the game penalty that carried Osaka to 5-3 in the second set.
The players didn’t realise what had happened at first, so rare is this extreme sanction. Williams went to receive and Osaka to serve, and Ramos had to call them back to the chair to explain that Williams was actually going to have to serve again. This was the moment when Earley was called to the court for a lengthy argument.
Eventually Williams did restart the match, and did so with impressive aplomb to hold serve decisively. But she was still weeping at the changeover before Osaka stepped up, shrugging off all the controversy, and produced her own near-flawless service game. The way she handled the pressure and the turmoil of the whole occasion was quite spectacular, as was her tennis throughout. As for Ramos, he was not handed the usual souvenir trophy for invigilating a major final.
Later, Mouratoglou confirmed that he had been coaching Williams in an interview with broadcaster Pam Shriver, but insisted that everyone does it. He also suggested that the whole schemozzle could threaten Williams’s career going forward.
“I was coaching but I don’t think she looked at me,” said Mouratoglou afterwards. “I am honest, I was coaching, Sascha [Bajin, Osaka’s coach] was coaching the whole time too. This is one of the rules that is ruining tennis. She [Williams] will struggle to come back from this.”
Earlier, Jamie Murray had successfully defended his US Open mixed-doubles title yesterday in partnership with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. It was his fourth grand-slam title in mixed doubles, with his third different partner.