There were many threads to untangle in the 2018 US Open final, but one strand remained constant: Naomi Osaka put in a performance for the ages.
WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen
September 9, 2018

NEW YORK, New York - Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese player to ever win a major singles title on Saturday, defeating Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 to win the US Open title. The 20-year-old became the fourth woman to defeat Serena in her first two meetings against the great, and will make her Top 10 debut on Monday at No.7.

The final was a dramatic and chaotic 79 minutes, which saw Serena Williams receive three code violations in the second set, resulting in both a point penalty and a game penalty, while Osaka, playing in her first major final, was relentless in her quality throughout.

Three thoughts on the 2018 US Open final, a match that will certainly be remembered.

Naomi Osaka brought her game and kept her head in the biggest match of her life.

Rest assured, Naomi Osaka is human. That may not have been apparent during her sparkling and poised performance between the lines on Saturday, where she played a near-flawless first set, making just 5 unforced errors and breaking Serena's serve twice, to take it in 34 minutes. And it certainly didn't show in the final game 45 minutes later, when Osaka stepped to the line well aware of Serena's penchant for a comeback, and closed out the match with ease.

But the 20-year-old admitted she was stressed from the minute she woke up on Saturday morning. 

"I woke up and I was sweating," Osaka old a small pool of reporters after the win. "I was so nervous. My heart was racing the entire day, I think that wasn't good for my health. I couldn't eat anything. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was just so stressed. 

"I kept calling my sister, my poor sister. She was telling me to think of it as if it was another match, and then I would yell at her 'Are you crazy? This is a Grand Slam final!' And since she's in Paris she was showing me we these random croissants and baguettes to take my mind off it. And it kind of worked."

Calmed by the magic of Parisian pastries, Osaka took to the court in the biggest match of her career and took care of business. The big concern for Osaka ahead of the match was how she planned to set aside her idol worship to play her multidimensional game, which on the surface seems predicated on power, but in reality, is now built on a solid foundation of intelligent counter-punching. 

Much like she did to unwind the power of Aryna Sabalenka in the Round of 16 and Madison Keys in the quarterfinals, Osaka's goal was never to out-hit Serena. Her goal was to test Serena's consistency off the baseline and strike only when the opportunity presented itself. 

"Today I was thinking I have an amazing opportunity against one of the greatest players and I really shouldn't take this chance for granted. I should fight for everything and never get upset because that would be disrespectful."
Naomi Osaka

"I think when I go on the court I sort of become a different person," Osaka said. "Today I was thinking I have an amazing opportunity against one of the greatest players and I really shouldn't take this chance for granted. I should fight for everything and never get upset because that would be disrespectful."

Not unlike her idol, Osaka has shown a remarkable ability to elevate her game when she needed to in New York. As the second set began to unfold, Serena began to clean up her game. Serena hit 9 winners to 13 unforced errors in the first set, but finished the second set with 12 winners and 8 unforced errors. As Serena ramped up the pressure on the baseline, so did Osaka. The youngster went from hitting 5 winners and 5 unforced errors in the first, to hitting 11 winners and 9 unforced errors in the second. 

Osaka simply dominated in every aspect of the game. She won the short rallies lasting 4 shots or fewer (46-38), and won 7 of the 8 rallies that lasted over 9 shots. She out-aced Serena 6-3, topped out with the fastest serve of the match at 119mph (Serena topped out at 118mph), and posted a faster average serve speed, 109mph to Serena's 106mph. The list goes on and on. Osaka landed more of her returns (69% vs. 59%), saved 4 of 5 break points (Serena saved 1 of 6), and finished with a +2 differential in winners to unforced errors (Serena finished at neutral).

This was a comprehensive performance from Osaka, who certainly proved why she belonged to standing across the net from Serena in the US Open final and, ultimately, why she earned the right to lift the trophy in the end.

"I feel like she was really, really consistent," Serena said. "I think her game is always super consistent. I felt like she played really well.

"She was so focused. I think whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve. Honestly, there's a lot I can learn from her from this match. I hope to learn a lot from that."

The officiating controversy shouldn't overshadow Osaka's performance.

Here are the facts: In the second game of the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued Serena a code violation for illegal coaching from the box after spotting coach Patrick Mouratoglou making a forward motion with his hands. Interviewed by Pam Shriver on ESPN, Mouratoglou said he was coaching.

Osaka held her serve to 1-1 on serve and then Serena saved break points to gut out a crucial hold to level the set at 2-1. Riding a slight wave of momentum, Serena broke Osaka in the next game to lead 3-1. 

But Serena could not consolidate her break advantage. At 30-15, Serena put in back-to-back double-faults and then missed a backhand to give back the break to 3-2. A frustrated Serena broke her racquet on court and was issued an automatic code violation for racquet abuse. As this was Serena's second code violation of the match, she was issued an automatic point penalty in the next game. 

With a 15-0 lead to start the seventh game, Osaka held a love with an ace to lead 3-3, on serve and then broke serve again to lead 4-3. Serena continued her discussions with the umpire during the changeover and was issued a third code violation, this time for verbal abuse. As this was her third code violation of the match, Serena was issued an automatic game penalty, giving Osaka a 5-3 lead. From there, Serena held serve at love to close the gap to 4-5, but Osaka was able to serve out the match at 30. 

After the match, Serena was asked whether the chair umpire's decision impacted the outcome of the match.

"I think that's a really good question," Serena said. "I don't know. I feel like she was playing really well, but I feel like I really needed to do a lot to change in that match to try to come out front, to try to come out on top.

"It's hard to say because I always fight till the end and I always try to come back, no matter what. But she was also playing really, really well. It's hard to say that I wouldn't have got a new level, because I've done it so many times in my career. So it's a tough question."

Osaka told reporters after the match that she wasn't aware of the substance of the discussions between Serena and the chair umpire during the match. She had turned her back once the discussions began in earnest and she couldn't hear anything due to the crowd noise. 

"I mean, the crowd was really noisy, so I really didn't hear," Osaka said. "I really didn't hear anything that was going on. And when I turned around, it was 5-3, so I was a little bit confused then. But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she's such a great champion, and I know that she can come back from any point. I was just trying to focus on myself at that time."

"I don't know what happened on the court. So for me, I'm always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn't change anything for me. She was really nice to me at the net and on the podium."

Osaka's performance was the ultimate tribute to her idol.

Put yourself in Naomi Osaka's shoes. You're about to play the biggest match of your young career, in the biggest tennis stadium in the world, in the city you grew up in, against the woman who you've publicly touted as the singular influence in your life outside of your family. The worst case scenario here is not losing 6-0, 6-0 to Serena Williams. The worst case scenario is that you embarrass yourself in front of your idol, to show that all that talk of learning from her ultimately meant little.

Osaka admitted that, in times of trouble during the match, she still asked herself "What would Serena do?"

"When she broke me in that one game and I had to try and save break points," Osaka said. "I was like 'What would Serena d-- Oh, she's right there.' Oh wait, what am I doing? 

"I was like, no you have to do it. You do it by yourself. And then no, Serena's better! And then I saved two [break points]. Then I was saying just keep going for it. Then at deuce, when I said keep going for it, I missed it. I was like 'See if you did what Serena would do you wouldn't have missed it.'"

Serena did break in that game. Osaka then broke right back. And this is where Osaka set herself apart. 

In the face of the pressure and the chaos, she was unwavering. She competed fiercely and played Serena's game better than Serena. Knowing full well that Serena could flip the match on a dime, Osaka showed laser focus and poise. She knew the match wasn't over until the last ball fell. She knew because she had seen enough of Serena to know that to be true. In short, her unwavering respect for the American forced her to play at her best.