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Bitter And Sweet

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CONT CONTROVERSY CLOUDED THE FIRST MAJOR TITLE WIN FOR NAOMI OSAKA, WHOSE POWERFUL PLAY, EMOTIONAL HONESTY AND QUIRKY HUMOR MAKE HER A CHAMPION TO BE CELEBRATED

LIKE ALL ambitious young tennis players, Naomi Osaka had visualized the montage for years. She had practiced her wave to the crowd. She had imagined and reimagined it in her mind: the moment she won her first major singles title. And when it finally happened on Sept. 8 in Flushing Meadows, it sure as hell bore no resemblance to her fantasy.

Here was Osaka, 20, standing on a podium inside Arthur Ashe Stadium after a dream victory: She hadn't so much met the moment as kicked its ass. She had used her unanswerable power to take down tennis's Mother Superior, Serena Williams, in the final of the U.S. Open. As breakthroughs go, you could scarcely fashion one bigger in scope and scale.

Yet the mood inside the stadium was angry, not celebratory; the air pierced with boos, not cheers. During the trophy ceremony, tournament organizers, officials and agents argued off to the side of the court. They looked, Osaka recalls, "like concerned adults, all serious and what-do-we-do-now?" Osaka herself appeared as though she had lost her pet, not won her first Grand Slam and almost $4 million in prize money. As she accepted the trophy, tears streaked her face. Ferociously shy, Osaka offered the most unusual victory speech: "I know everyone was cheering for her, and I'm sorry it had to end like this."

Due in no small part to her opponent's superior play, Williams—who was vying for her record-tying 24th major singles title—had been frustrated during the match. After dropping the first set 6--2, she erupted during the second: at the chair umpire for warning her about coaching; at her racket, cracking it on the ground and drawing a point penalty; and at the chair again, calling him a "thief" and a "liar."

The cumulative penalty was the loss of a game. It was then that the final officially turned into a circus. As Osaka went on to close out the match 6--4, the crowd of 24,000 went nuts; so did millions watching (and tweeting) worldwide. Everyone from J.K. Rowling and Hank Aaron (pro-Serena) to Coke's top sport marketing director (anti-Serena) offered hot takes. Williams's outburst was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

Osaka's much-anticipated moment had lost its central emotion: joy. Three months later, when asked to characterize the day, she won't go better than "bittersweet." At the same time she won't disparage Serena, who remains her idol. "I have so much tea right now, but I'm not going to spill it," Osaka says. "There's a lot of stuff I want to say about, like, how I felt and whatever. But for me, I don't know.... "

The controversial final obscured what had been a brilliant tournament for Osaka, the No. 20 seed. Even before out-Serena-ing Serena in the finals, she was playing at a level far superior to the field, at one point winning 22 straight games. A one-woman tribute to the power of globalization, Osaka is the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, and she grew up mainly in Florida. Her dad, Leonard Francois, saw an interview with Serena's father in the late 1990s and decided to follow Richard Williams's template with Naomi and her older sister, Mari (who has struggled with injuries and is ranked No. 336). Their mom, Tamaki, went along with the plan, providing support and transportation.

Osaka wears headphones in the players' lounge and locker room, not to listen to music but to avoid having to make conversation. But she'll also max out her lungs watching Overwatch League teams and, before her star turn, was best known in tennis circles for her endearingly quirky interviews. Asked in 2017 what went through her mind as she played, she responded, "You know, there is that commercial that says, 'If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma'? That's all I could think about for the whole practice."

Osaka's ascent may not have gotten its due in the U.S., but she's already an ichiban-level celebrity in Japan. Within days of her Open title, she signed a sponsorship deal with Nissan. (That same week Adidas also reportedly gave her an $8.5 million contract, the largest the brand has ever conferred on a female athlete.) When she played the Tokyo tournament in September, she got the Beatles-at-Heathrow treatment. (Tellingly, she reached the final.) With the 2020 Olympics heading to Tokyo, rest assured she will be featured prominently in the run-up.

Which, for her, is fine; there's plenty of tea left to spill. "I don't expect myself to just win one Grand Slam," she told reporters last fall. "I try to tell myself that if I believe in myself, then there's a lot of good things that will happen."

And then, maybe, she'll get the celebration she deserves.