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We Are Not Worthy, Naomi Osaka

Osaka’s first Grand Slam win, the 2018 U.S. Open, over Serena Williams, was marred with controversy. In the Australian Open final, the stage is set for her to assume her place as the game’s next great champion.   

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m here to say enough is enough. This whole “tennis fans love Naomi Osaka” thing—it’s completely out of control. Every time she plays, my phone starts buzzing like a hive of woozy bees. “She’s so cool.” “She’s the best.” “I LOVE HER.” Friends! We have to get these feelings in check before they consume us!

After all, we are tennis fans. We’re not supposed to be happy! If we wanted likable young stars with the talent and fortitude to rise to the top of their sport, we’d have chosen a different game to follow. Basketball, maybe, or, like, cricket. I’ve never seen a cricket match, but I assume all the players are 52-year-old earls from the Althorp-Swifferingdon dynasty, and therefore several thousand years younger than Roger Federer.

Elite tennis is not supposed to be about fun. Elite tennis is supposed to be about Anna Wintour faintly clapping in support of an ancient and immutable hierarchy.

And anyway, what’s so great about Osaka? I mean, sure, she’s incredibly charming, funny, smart, apparently quite kind, modest, open, and interesting. What else does she have going for her? OK, you could add that she’s only 21 and that she’s blazingly talented, with a pile driver of a serve and a forehand that can knock the air out of your stomach. Also that her life story—the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, playing tennis for Japan, the country of her birth, and growing up in the United States—is fascinating. Also, I’ll admit, she’s shown rare fortitude by reaching the Australian Open final, her second major final in a row, in an era when young players who experience the smallest taste of success typically go to pieces and spend the next 18 months dropping third-round matches to Ekaterina Makarova.

Fine, then—Osaka’s array of appealing qualities gives her a natural charisma that’s practically dizzying. But come on. Are you telling me this means we have to like her?

The overwhelming affection for Osaka among the tennis-viewing public seems to be based mainly on two factors, both of which, in my view, represent dangerous entanglements that tennis fans would do well to avoid. I am referring to faith in humanity and faith in the future. For many years, the upper echelon of men’s and women’s tennis has been dominated by a cadre of unkillable World War I veterans groaning their way to victory after zombie victory. Young players are relegated to lives of mockery and servitude. Occasionally someone in their mid-to-late 20s might, like Simona Halep, earn a temporary spell as figurehead no. 1 while Serena Williams is off having a baby and making a documentary and generally being a grown-up. But Serena always comes back. And for the most part, the Stefanos Tsitsipases of the world cannot so much as poke their heads out of the Possible Future Star trench without immediately being pummeled to dust by Rafael Nadal’s undead artillery.

The notion that the cycle of human generations might once again function as intended—that younger stars might rise to supplant older stars so that the sport has new drama and a promising future—undoubtedly has a certain appeal. Thinking about it now, I feel a warm something spreading through all my limbs. (Joy? Could it be joy?) Wouldn’t it be wonderful, hums a rebellious part of my heart, if Naomi turned out to be better than Serena? If she followed up her dominant win over Serena in the 2018 U.S. Open final with more wins, ran Serena off the court, forcibly ended her era, and started an exciting new one? Isn’t that how this is supposed to work? I love Serena, but I’ve been rooting for her for 20 years. That’s a long era.

The rest of my heart—the wise and cautious part, the part that comes with me to doctor’s offices and Australian Open finals—shouts back that these feelings are frightening and must be suppressed. What if the old guard hears me? Roger Federer needs 27 majors!

No: Naomi Osaka is too good. She’s too exhilarating. She inspires an altogether alarming amount of hope. Tennis champions are supposed to make me feel as though I am 100 feet deep in decades of accumulated psychodrama, but when I watch Naomi—bizarrely—I only feel that I am watching a really good tennis player who also seems like a cool person. Honestly, it’s disorienting. During her postmatch interviews, which are always more or less delightful, she’ll talk about how much she loves video games or whatever, and it’ll be sweet and funny, and I’ll be sitting there thinking It’s weird how this is supposedly about tennis, yet it doesn’t make me think about all the times I wept blood in 2007.

Need an example? Just compare Naomi’s semifinal win against Karolina Pliskova to Serena’s loss to Pliskova in the previous round. Before the tournament, a New York Times headline declared that Serena’s return to the Australian Open was about “Tennis and So Much More.” And it’s true; every Serena match, always, is about much more than tennis. Serena’s cultural importance is so justifiably immense that each of her appearances becomes a kind of symbolic referendum—on motherhood, on her legacy, on the majors record, on fashion, on the long history of racism in tennis, on the past traumas and triumphs of her career. During the middle part of her quarterfinal against Pliskova, when she reversed a set-and-a-break deficit and seemed to seize control of the match, Serena hit some sensational winners. But it’s the end of the third set, when she was called for a foot fault while one point away from victory, that will be remembered.

If you’ve read this far, you already know what happened. Serena rolled her ankle on the next serve, then, though she never asked for a trainer or seemed particularly hobbled, dropped six straight games—six!—to lose the match. She is the best server in the history of women’s tennis. She lost every point on her serve after the foot fault. Not every game. Every point. She dropped four match points. And the effect of all this, other than pure horror, was to create a set of baroquely interrelated callbacks to previous moments from her career, callbacks whose baroque interrelations both engulfed and transcended the on-court action in Melbourne.

There was the memory of her 2009 U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters, when—as you may recall; if not, the commentators and a million tweets were there to bring it back for you—Serena exploded at a line judge after another foot-fault call gave Clijsters two match points. This, in turn, brought back the memory of her 2018 U.S. Open final against Osaka, when she exploded at the referee after being penalized for a coaching violation. Both incidents provoked spiraling, complicated cultural conversations about justice and rules enforcement. Though neither was transparently motivated by racism, both highlighted the difficulties Serena has faced, the sense of double standards and prejudice lurking in ambiguity, as a black woman in a conservative country-club sport. Both raised the national cortisol level for about a week after they took place. Was it all about to happen again? Then in the midst of all this, the astonishing velocity and completeness of Serena’s collapse brought back memories of past injuries and health struggles and inexplicable meltdowns both overcome and not—the mystery illness that derailed her 2014 Wimbledon, most obviously.

In the end, the foot-fault call didn’t provoke the thousand-alarm fire it seemed to threaten. Serena kept her cool. After the match, she downplayed the ankle injury and complimented Pliskova’s play. But the absence of actual drama only served to emphasize the presence of phantom drama, the historical echo of drama, in the minds of everyone watching. There’s no issue of blame here; Serena has simply had a very long and intensely compelling career, and phantom drama can be fascinating in its own right. But after the relentless emotional complexity of the Williams-Pliskova match, Osaka-Pliskova felt positively light. It might have been a tough three-set match that ended 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, but it wasn’t about Tennis and So Much More. It was only about tennis.

It was about Naomi steeling herself to defend her second serve when her first serve, her biggest weapon, failed her. It was about the searing backhand winners, two of them in a row, that she hit to fend off break points that would have given Pliskova a 2-0 lead in the third. It was about the half-disbelieving joy on her face when she won, and about the suddenly very real possibility of the no. 1 ranking, which she’ll assume if she beats Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s final.

So look. I know Naomi was fun to watch. I know her on-court interview was endearing (‘’I was so scared serving second serves. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Please!’”). I know the way she talks about tennis—she says she plays best from a place of inner peace and that her goal for the Australian Open is not to get angry—is unusual and refreshing. I know the prospect of a rising star from the younger generation actually doing it, actually consolidating a hold at the top of the game, is so exciting that it kind of makes you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. All of those things would count for a lot if this were one of your trendy youth sports, like baseball. But this is tennis, where our allegiance belongs to the rigid order of immortals and their various visor brands and gluten intolerances. And therefore I cannot support Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open final.

I mean, OK, I’ll probably wear a GO NAOMI shirt during the match. I’ll probably “cheer” when she does well, and “react with outward signs of desolation” when she struggles. Fine. I may cry if she wins. You caught me. Inwardly, though, I will continue to reject the future. I’m watching highlights right now, and wow, that forehand. It’s just so … No! I refuse to accept that the game will ever change! This foot-wide grin on my face is a grin of suffering because I love tennis so much.