Twenty-three-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams has opened up about her experience competing in the 2018 U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka in a column for Harper’s Bazaar.
Nearly a year ago, Williams was contending for her 24th career Grand Slam title, a mark that would have tied her with Margaret Court for the most in the Open era. At the beginning of the second set, the umpire issued her a violation, saying he saw her coach motioning to her from the stands. On court coaching is prohibited at Grand Slam events.
Several points later, the American smashed her racquet against the ground in frustration and was given a second violation. The penalty was conceding a point to her opponent. Williams called the umpire a thief and demanded an apology. His response was to penalize her a third time, which resulted in a game given to Osaka.
Osaka ultimately came out on top, 6-2, 6-4, to win her first Grand Slam title, while Williams was fined $17,000 for code violations, breaking her racket and “verbal abuse” against the umpire.
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But this moment, Williams says, goes beyond her desire to win, and the sexism, racism and body shaming she has endured over the years.
“This was different. I was hurt—cut deeply,” the 37-year-old wrote. “I tried to compare it to other setbacks I’ve had in my life and career, and for some reason I couldn’t’ shake the feeling that this was about so much more than just me.”
This time, the situation impacted others. It wasn’t just Williams whose title run was derailed. Osaka’s moment of winning her first career Grand Slam was also overtaken by the spotlight shift.
Several days after the match, Williams realized that she could not move forward until she sent Osaka an apology.
"I am, was, and will always be happy for and supportive of you," she wrote to Osaka. "I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete."
Osaka's response confirmed why Williams continues to fight for equality.
"No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing."
Williams said the conversation goes beyond their match. The moment was a piece of the larger conversation around how women are treated—in the workforce, sports and their daily lives.
“Why is it that when women get passionate, they’re labeled as emotional, crazy and irrational?” Williams wrote. “We’re not allowed to have emotions. We are told to sit down and be quiet, which frankly is just something I’m not okay with. It’s shameful that our society penalizes women just for being themselves.”
Picking up a racket again wasn’t easy, but Williams didn’t do it for herself.
“Ultimately, my daughter is the reason I use my voice,” Williams said.
Through all of her setbacks, the former world No.1 has persevered, each time coming back stronger to prove to the world why she is one of the sport’s greatest champions.
“It’s never been easy. But then I think of the next girl who is going to come along who looks like me, and I hope, ‘maybe, just maybe, my voice will help her’.”
Williams reached the semifinals of Wimbledon on Tuesday with a three-set win over compatriot Alison Riske. She and partner Andy Murray also reached the Round of 16 in mixed doubles and are set to face No.1 seeds Nicole Melichar and Bruno Soares on Wednesday.