In the middle of her United States Open final against Naomi Osaka at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, with a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title on the line, Serena Williams was standing on the court calling the chair umpire a thief.
This is not the way it was supposed to go for Williams, 36, perhaps the greatest player her sport has seen, on a night that was supposed to be a celebration of her career and her comeback to the top of tennis a year after giving birth.
After Osaka dominated the first set, another sign that this would not be a coronation for Williams came early in the second, when she received a warning for receiving help from her coach in the stands.
A few games later, Williams slammed her racket and broke it. That garnered a penalty point in Osaka’s favor. Still steaming from the previous warning, Williams fumed at the chair umpire and, as tensions rose on the court and in the crowd, she received a game penalty that gave Osaka a 5-3 lead, one game from the title.
Within minutes, instead of trading blazing ground strokes with Osaka, a 20-year-old born in Japan who grew up idolizing her, Williams was having a heated conversation with the tournament referee. “There are men out here that do a lot worse,” she said, “but because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right.”
For Williams, this was all too familiar. She has had a series of run-ins with officials at the Open, the Grand Slam event that she has won six times but that she has also been eliminated from four times in matches with contentious officiating.
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Williams did not recover in time to salvage Saturday’s match, which Osaka won, 6-2, 6-4. But as the boos and whistles rained down on the court during the awards ceremony, Williams resumed her role as the sport’s leader, urging the fans to appreciate the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title.
“Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due and let’s not boo anymore,” she said to the fans.