This Controversial Match Between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka is Covered in ESPN’s ‘Backstory’ Premiere

Tennis icon Serena Williams is known for her stellar athleticism and strong competitive nature. Fans of the sport may recall a match in particular during the 2018 U.S. Open, where things got heated between Williams and the umpire. Now ESPN is taking a closer look at the controversial exchanges that happened on the sidelines.

2018 U.S. Open – Carlos Ramos and Serena Williams | KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Matched against an up-and-coming player

Williams was playing against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in the hopes of winning her 24th Grand Slam title. Osaka vocalized her admiration of Williams, seeing it as an honor to be on the same court, according to Good Morning America.

While Osaka was a strong competitor in the process of making a name for herself, she was the newest to the landscape. Williams is obviously a seasoned champion at the sport, and the umpire, Carlos Ramos, also had been in the judging chair since he was 16 years old. The two tennis veterans clearly clashed throughout the monumental match, inspiring the ESPN Backstory premiere episode.

How it started

When Williams began losing in the second set after Ramos said Williams had committed a code violation by getting a ‘thumbs up’ signal from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, he gave her a warning. “If he gives me a thumbs-up, he is telling me to come on,” Williams told Ramos, as reported by Good Morning America. “We don’t have any code and I know you don’t know that, and [I] understand why you may have thought that that was coaching, but it is not. I don’t cheat to win; I would rather lose. I am just letting you know.”

The confrontations escalated from there. Williams received a second violation after slamming her racket in frustration after the fifth game in the second set, which cost her a point. She demanded an apology from Ramos, thus receiving a third violation for what Ramos termed as “verbal abuse” after Williams called him a “thief,” saying “You stole a point from me.”

Williams ended up losing to Osaka, which resulted in boos from the audience, tainting the young tennis player’s victory and causing her to break down in tears. She addressed the crowd, apologizing for her win. “I’m sorry. I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry that it had to end like this,” Osaka said, according to ESPN. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match. Thank you … It was always my dream to play Serena in the U.S. Open finals, so I’m really glad that I was able to do that. I’m really grateful that I was able to play with you. Thank you.”

Spectators and commentators were amazed by the audience response. “I was down on the court because I was supposed to present the trophy to the winner,” retired tennis champ Chris Evert said, as reported by Good Morning America. “The floor was shaking, the roof was shaking, the boos were thundering. I could not hear a thing.”

The ‘Backstory’

ESPN turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Don Van Natta to examine what happened during one of the most controversial moments in tennis history for their premiere episode of their series Backstory. Van Natta explored the backgrounds of both Williams and Ramos to discover why these two seasoned veterans came to such a heightened point of contention.

Van Natta spoke to Williams’ coach on the alleged violation. “It was probably one of the biggest moments of her career,” Mouratoglou told Van Natta. “She’s in a Grand Slam final to equal the record of all time and she’s losing, and she’s — I [felt] at that moment — she’s lost on the court. So, I tried to help her. That’s my job.”

While Mouratoglou was disappointed with the match’s outcome, he noted that it was a memorable moment for the sport. “It’s unbelievable. That was the best moment of tennis [in the] last 10 years,” he told Van Natta. “We don’t have any drama in tennis. We have drama in all other sports, but not tennis.”

Since the incident, Williams has spoken out publicly on the matter, saying she wrote a letter to Osaka. “As I said on the court, I am so proud of you and I am truly sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing in sticking up for myself,” she wrote to Osaka, according to Harper’s Bazaar. “But I had no idea the media would pit us against each other. I would love the chance to live that moment over again. I am, was, and will always be happy for you and supportive of you. I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete.”

Osaka graciously received the apology. “People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two,” Osaka wrote in her reply to Williams. “No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing.”

For more on the Williams-Osaka match, check out ESPN’s website for their Backstory episode!