All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 9: Passing the Torch

Cecil Harris: In 2018, Serena guested on Jimmy Fallon. She was there to promote a documentary she made with HBO called Being Serena. It followed her through the birth of her daughter. 


Serena Williams: But now. She's the reason why this all means even more than it did before. 


Jimmy Fallon: Oh,  I love it. 


Cecil Harris: The series catalogs her journey back to tennis. Viewers get to see intimate footage from her training, from her wedding to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and from her complicated birthing experience when she almost died. But after 14 months away from tennis, the longest hiatus of her career, Serena was determined to return and prove that she was still the best. 


Serena Williams: Yeah, I'm going to play the French at Wimbledon as well. 


Jimmy Fallon: Absolutely, Yes. Yeah. There's no quitting. There's no slowing down. 


Serena Williams: There's no slowing down. I just want more. I want more. I'm having fun and it's going to be great. 


Jimmy Fallon: I'm Cecil Harris, and this is All American, Venus and Serena. Episode Nine: Passing the Torch. A lot was at stake for Serena when she returned to tennis in 2018. She was 36 years old. She had 23 Grand Slam titles. The last time she had won a major title was the year before at the Australian Open, and when she left for maternity leave, she was the number one player in the world. Unfortunately, at this time, women's tennis did not protect the player's ranking if she took time off to have a baby. So Serena would have to work her way back up. She came back from her leave, ranked outside the top 400, but hungry to get back to number one and to win her 24th title, which would tie the all time record. Serena's first major tournament back in 2018 was the French Open. She made it to the fourth round, and then a month later at Wimbledon, she did even better. She played her way to the final. She lost that championship match, but she won the admiration of the Wimbledon crowd. 


TV Journalist: Serena, it's only your fourth tournament back. And you knew you didn't know what to expect, but you've had such a great tournament. You've played so well. 


Serena Williams: Yeah, it was such a amazing tournament for me. I was really happy to get this far.


Cecil Harris: This is Serena just moments after taking the runner up prize at Wimbledon. Serena was emotional, but she was really clear eyed about the progress she was making. She said she couldn't be disappointed because she was just getting started in her comeback. 


TV Journalist: You've hardly played any matches. Absolutely. And I tell you, there are moms everywhere saying, how has. She done this? You are superhuman super mom. 


Serena Williams: No, I'm just I'm just me. And that's all I can be. But to all the moms out there, you know what's playing for you today? 


Cecil Harris: Less than a year after having a baby. She was still at the top of her game. The 2018 U.S. Open was just around the corner, and it would be Serena's last chance to win a major title that year. The anticipation was palpable, and I was there to cover it. I hopped on a call with my producer, Albert, to talk about how the tournament unfolded. 


Albert: So walk us through the 2018 U.S. Open. What was it like? Who were you writing for? 


Cecil Harris: I covered the U.S. Open for the New York Daily News. All of my byline stories have by Cecil Harris special to the News, which tells people in the business that I don't work for them full time. I'm covering this assignment for them. So I got my press credential and I was excited about covering the U.S. Open again. It had been quite a while. 


Albert: And Serena, she was the big story entering the tournament. She was going for a 24 title, but she wasn't necessarily favored to win. But then she started playing really well. What about her game from a tennis standpoint? Was suggesting we were seeing a dominant Serena again. 


Cecil Harris: Her all around game. She has the best serve in women's tennis history, the best return of serve I've ever seen in women's tennis. And her court coverage was outstanding. She was going from side to side, backward and forward, hitting winners from all over the court and punctuating it with come on and roars and fist pumps and screams. And her fans feed off that and they yell back. And the soundtrack of Serena's matches were much louder than the other matches because Serena was so into it and her fans were into it. 6162. That's Serena winning her third round match against Venus. She made moving through the US Open look almost effortless. Eventually, Serena took the court for the semifinals. 


Cecil Harris: Serena blistered one of her signature forehands to finish off the semifinal match. She was headed to the final Grand Slam title number 24. And that hallowed record were now within reach. But Serena had one more opponent to face an up and comer. 


TV Journalist: 13 breakpoints faced, 13 saved. How did you do that? 


Naomi Osaka: This is going to sound really bad. But I was just thinking, I really want to play Serena. 


Cecil Harris: That's Naomi Osaka on court after winning her semifinal match. Naomi was 20 years old, 16 years younger than Serena. Naomi was born in Japan, but mostly raised in America. But on the tennis court, she plays for Japan. And at this time, she was far from a household name. Later that evening, after advancing to the final, Naomi met with us reporters in a U.S. Open press conference. She explained what the moment meant to her. 


Naomi Osaka: Oh, well, I mean, of course, it feels a little bit like surreal. I was like even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a grand slam. So just the fact that it's happening is I'm very happy about it. But at the same time, I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. And yeah, I shouldn't really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just, like, try to play her as an opponent. 


Albert: Okay. So most people hadn't heard of Naomi before, but you'd spoken with her. Who is Naomi Osaka at this time? 


Cecil Harris: Naomi was what we have come to see her as introspective, intelligent, very soft spoken, very shy. She was a rising star. That's one of the reasons I spoke to her at the Australian Open because I liked her backstory. Haitian father, Japanese mother grew up on Long Island about an hour from the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York City, then relocated to Boca Raton, Florida. And Naomi told me that as a third grader, she got a class assignment. Write about the person you admire most. Naomi wrote her paper about Serena. And in it, she says she wrote that I want to beat Serena in the U.S. Open final. Can you imagine that? She's in the third grade? 


Albert: Wow. That's amazing. And so what was she like as a player? 


Cecil Harris: Naomi was a player that Serena correctly identified as very dangerous. Naomi is a power player like Serena. Big serve, big forehand, big groundstrokes from the baseline. Serena volleys better. But Naomi, when she's on hits the ball so hard, you really can't get her off the baseline, just completely on the defensive. And that's what opponents have to deal with against Serena. You're just trying to handle the power and survive the point. You really can't move Serena around. But Naomi had one tournament title going into that U.S. Open Indian Wells. 


Albert: And see. So you were in that U.S. Open press conference with Naomi, and you got the chance to ask her question. 


Cecil Harris: Naomi, how much did the experience at Indian Wells beating top players and winning a championship, holding up a trophy? How much will that help you? Saturday. 


Naomi Osaka: Um, I'm not really sure. I think atmosphere wise, I think tonight would help me more because I played against an American and the crowd wasn't really for me, but I sort of like that atmosphere. So I think instead of Indian Wells, just my matches here will help me. 


Cecil Harris: So after the match Saturday, will you have remarks prepared? 


Naomi Osaka: What do you mean? 


Cecil Harris: Well, after Indian Wells that seem to catch you by surprise in your acceptance speech. You? 


Naomi Osaka: Yeah. I'm going to practice, I guess. Oh, geez. 


Cecil Harris: I was happy my question could provide some levity. Naomi was still learning to navigate the spotlight and could laugh at the occasional awkwardness that came with it. I knew that Naomi absolutely had the skills to play in the U.S. Open final, but to win, especially against Serena Williams, the crowd favorite, that was a tall order. Could Serena win another Grand Slam title to tie the all time record? I would be among 23,000 people watching in person, and there were about 3 million more viewers tuning in at home. 


TV Journalist: For Serena, don't call it a comeback. 


Cecil Harris: This is a short video from the US Open introducing the broadcast for the 2018 women's final. This would be Serena's 31st time in a Grand Slam final. And Naomi's first. 


TV Journalist: Just call it destiny. It's the women's final tonight at the U.S. Open. 


Albert: What do you remember about the moment before this match started? 


Cecil Harris: I got the distinct sense on final day that the people were excited because they thought they were going to be part of history. If you've got a old fashioned ticket stub or if you have it on your phone, you save that forever. You fully intend to show everybody. September 8th, 2018. U.S. Open Women's Final. I was there. See? Here's my ticket. This is why I said you expected to see something historic. 


Albert: Where were you sitting for this match? 


Cecil Harris: I wanted to be out among the people, and I'm glad I made that decision because there are so many things I would not have been able to hear if I had stayed in the pressroom. So I sat in the media section. So, you know, you've got fans to the left of you, fans to the right, fans in front of you, of fans behind you. And you can just see it all and hear as much as they will let you hear. 


Albert: Would you just walk us through the match? What do you remember about the moment Serena and Naomi stepped onto the court? 


Cecil Harris: Okay. It struck me that they both came out wearing black and that's, you know, Naomi idolizing Serena. Serena likes to wear black. Serena's tutu was black. Every time Serena won a point, huge ovation. Fans are really jacked up for Serena. But early on, it was clear that Naomi had a strategy. So as the first set played out. Naomi broke was the first one to break serve to take a21 lead, and there's a buzz in the crowd. Okay, Serena's behind. And an impromptu chant broke out. Serena. Serena, that's almost mind blowing to me, because I remember 22 so. Well, now they are chanting Serena's name because she's down there trying to rally her. But Naomi wasn't having it, and she won six of the first eight games to take the set. And Serena, she has lost sets before, but this one felt different because she was being outplayed by someone playing essentially the same game. She was losing to a harder hitting, younger version of herself. And the only noise after that first set was the piped in artificial music that they play. Otherwise, it would have sounded like you were at a wake. 


Albert: Yeah. I mean, I remember watching this at home. It was just brutal. So that takes us to the second set. 


Cecil Harris: Things got crazy after the first game of the second set, which Serena won. So there's more applause from the crowd, people. I'm getting the sense looking around all this is the start of Serena's comeback. We've seen her comeback after losing four sets many times. Naomi is about the serve. When we hear from Carlos Ramos, the umpire. Only this.


TV Journalist:  Code violation coaching warning Mrs. Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Now you're going to be watching tennis for 20 years and not know what the hell is he talking about? Patrick , Serena's coach, was giving this forward motion like two shark fins, essentially telling Serena, go forward, be more aggressive. But you're not supposed to coach. You're not supposed to give hand signals. Carlos Ramos is a by the book empire. He saw it and he gave Serena penalty. But Carlos Ramos did not explain it in a way that the crowd understood. So Serena approached him. 


Serena Williams: If he just gets upset. You don't happen to know. You don't know that and understand why. You may have thought That was coaching. I'm telling you, it's not. I don't cheat to win, I'd rather lose. 


Serena Williams: There's a bull microphone at courtside that allow the people at home to hear what's being said and allows the people in the stadium to hear what's being said by the player. The umpire has a microphone and his little stand and his high chair. And Carlos Ramos was, I'll say, savvy enough, veteran enough to turn off his microphone when he addressed Serena directly. So even though I'm in the stands and I have other reporters in the media section with me, we couldn't hear what Carlos Ramos was saying to Serena, but we always heard what Serena was saying because of that bull microphone.  


Cecil Harris: Serena seemed to think she had cleared things up with the umpire. But Carlos Ramos is a by the book. He did not reverse the call. And here's what the rule book says about coaching during a match. Signals from a coach are illegal. When that happens, the umpire is supposed to call a penalty, also known as a code violation. It is unusual for an umpire to call this, especially during a major final. Many aunts would give a soft warning in this case, but Serena got a penalty for her coach's actions. Still, the match went on and Serena started to come back. Serena broke Naomi's serve to take her first lead of the match. The crowd was going wild. They were feeling hopeful for Serena. But then Serena served again, and Naomi broke her serve and changed the momentum of the set. 


TV Journalist: We'll need a new frame smash for that one. Back on serve. Williams needs three guys to do.. 


TV Journalist: And Serena was so upset about not extending her lead that she smashed her racket. And that is a penalty. Any umpire in the sport would call that its racket abuse. But again, here's what Ramos said to the crowd of 23,000. 


TV Journalist: Code violation racket abuse. Final two, Mrs. Williams. 


Cecil Harris: How many people who watch tennis know what that means? Not enough. More of an explanation was needed. Hey, this is Serena's second penalty. The first was for her coach's illegal hand signals. The second penalty means Serena Williams loses a point. Naomi Osaka will begin the next game, serving at 15. Love with a one nothing lead, essentially. Serena was confused and frustrated. Serena was not disagreeing about the racket abuse violation, but she still disagreed with that first call. The violation for coaching. That first penalty made this second penalty much more costly. Things were escalating. 


Serena Williams: I didn't get coaching. I didn't get coaching. I didn't get coaching. You need to take you need to make an announcement that I didn't get coaching. I don't cheat. I didn't get coaching. I couldn't say that. You owe me an apology. I Haven't cheated it in my life. I have a daughter.


Cecil Harris: But now, Serena's, back to you. You stole a point for me. You owe me an apology. 


TV Journalist: Demanding an Apology from him for the insinuation that she had cheated, that was coaching going on again. And any player, they're going to bear some of the blame for this. 


Cecil Harris: You stole a point from me. You are a thief, too. With this choice of words, Serena found herself in even hotter water. 


Announcer: Penalty. 


Cecil Harris: This was Serena's third code violation from Carlos Ramos, this time for verbal abuse, which meant she was being penalized a game. Losing a point was one thing, but a game penalty would change the score. And Serena might not come back from that. Serena was now just one game from losing the match. The crowd was still confused. They didn't know all the rules. They were reacting to Serena's anger. 


Serena Williams: Are you kidding me? You're a thief. This is just off point for me. But i'm not a cheater, apologize. 


Cecil Harris: Serena called over the tournament referee and an official from the Women's Tennis Association. 


Cecil Harris: Serena was in tears. It was chaos on the court. The referee and the umpire were conferring while Serena was pleading with the WTA official. 


Albert: I just never seen anything like this. A one game penalty may not sound like much, but it's a huge deal that can completely change a match. It's like the equivalent of a referee taking away a touchdown at a huge moment in the Super Bowl. I mean, what were you feeling being in that crowd when the scoreboard changes to five three for Naomi? 


Cecil Harris: Well, I know I'm covering a big story now and that the journalist in me is excited. But as someone who only really developed an emotional attachment to tennis because of Venus and Serena, I don't like where this match is going because the crowd doesn't know what the umpire has done or why he has done it. They don't understand. But it got ugly with a lot of people cursing, you know? B.S.. And they'll. They're robbing you, Serena. They just want that Japanese girl to win. She doesn't deserve to win. They're robbing you, Serena. A lot of anger. Serena kept trying to make her point to the referee who had been called on to the court. As Serena attempted to dispute her third code violation, the crowd was in a state of rage on her behalf. 


Serena Williams: It's not right. I know you know it, it's not right. 


Cecil Harris: I mean, I'll just tell you what the tennis rulebook has to say about verbal abuse. And this won't take long. It's language that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive. So for a player to say to an umpire, no, you're a liar and you're a thief, too, that constitutes verbal abuse. The issue is, I've heard male tennis players say far worse than that. John McEnroe It's just a history of abusive, ugly tantrums on court. I've seen Jimmy Connors pretend to masturbate with the handle of his tennis racket while pointing it toward the umpire like and nothing was done. But the referee upheld the umpire's call and the match went on. Naomi Osaka needed just one game to win the championship. 


TV Journalist: How could Serena Possibly regroup from this. 


Cecil Harris: I'm there working. I want to see Serena win, but no cheering in the press section because it's the second set. And I've got this tight, tight deadline. You know, I'm writing as I watch. Naomi had her her moment where she has to prove it. You know, this is her first major final. She has to prove that she is ready to be a major champion because it's on her racket now. But she went out there and she's served like a champion. And on match point, she hit a blistering serve to Serena's backhand. Serena barely got a racket on it, didn't get it back. And that's how the match ended. 


TV Journalist: Six four. Naomi Osaka. A quantum leap. U.S. Open champion. Instant star. 


Cecil Harris: And there was thunderous booing as the players approached each other at the net. 


TV Journalist: She's beaten her idol. She's won her first grand slam. She's made history for Japanese tennis. Ramos as he exits. 


Cecil Harris: Now. Naomi admitted afterward she thought they were booing her and Serena gave her a motherly hug at the net. And it was a nice moment. But by then, the crowd was just irate. 


Pam Shriver: Well, Patrick, I know you certainly didn't intend to insert yourself in the way that it happened. 


Cecil Harris: That's Hall of Famer Pam Shriver. You'll remember her from earlier in our season. After this match, Pam got a chance to interview Patrick, Serena's coach. 


Pam Shriver: And can you describe the motion that you made that was interpreted by the chair umpire as coaching? 


Patrick: Well, I mean, I'm honest. I was coaching. I mean, I don't think she looked at me. So that's why she didn't even think I was. 


Cecil Harris: Although Patrick admitted to using illegal hand signals, he suggested coaching during a match isn't a big deal. 


Pam Shriver: I have a question. Have you ever been called a coaching violation before? 


Patrick: Not once in my life. Not once, to be honest. Not once in my life. And you can check the records. You'll see. Very strange to happen in a Grand Slam final. 


Cecil Harris: This was a Grand Slam final. No one would ever forget the most contentious final in tennis history. The crowd came expecting to see Serena win her 24th major title. But after a series of confusing calls and emotional outbursts from Serena, the crowd felt it had been robbed. 


Albert: I mean, what did you think? Did you think that Serena was robbed? 


Cecil Harris: Serena was not robbed because every penalty assessed against her and her coach was valid. And tennis umpires should be told. Explain the penalty. When Carlos Ramos saw Patrick Mouratoglou giving hand signals. It doesn't matter if Serena saw them or not. He, the coach, gave illegal signals and the umpire saw it. And unfortunately, Serena lost her poise and the crowd was reacting to Serena's anger without knowing the rules. 


Albert: But umpires also do have wiggle room and to call such a severe penalty in a crucial moment in a Grand Slam final. It's a huge deal and a lot of umpires just wouldn't call it. And there is just no way a men's player with Serena's resume and stature would have been treated the same way. 


Cecil Harris: This moment remains controversial, even for those who know the world of tennis well. Like my producer and me. But to me, what is clear was that the umpire's calls were by the book. Serena's coach was coaching illegally. He even said so. That's a warning. Serena did smash her racket. That's a point penalty. And she did verbally abused the umpire. That's a game penalty. On paper, this was all fair and square. But even if you don't agree with that, I think people can agree that Naomi Osaka, the new U.S. Open champion, was robbed of a special moment. 


TV Journalist: It is Naomi's moment, but much of the story, as it always is, centers around Serena Williams. Time for the trophies and that big check . 


Announcer: Good evening, everyone and we welcome you to the trophy celebration of the United States Open. 


Cecil Harris: As the crowd of 23,000 booed, Naomi pulled her visor over her face and cried. Serena comforted her. This moment was excruciating. 


Announcer: Serena, not the result that you wanted tonight. How do you put into perspective what this match contained? 


Serena Williams: Well, I don't want to be rude, but I don't want to interrupt. I don't want to do questions. I just want to tell you guys. She played well and this is her first grand slam. 


Cecil Harris: While this moment was unprecedented, it was also a familiar scene. Serena was stepping in on behalf of tennis to clear up a mess. 


Serena Williams: Let's give everyone the credit where credit's due and let's not boo anymore. We just we're going to we're going to get through this and let's be positive. So congratulations Naomi!


Cecil Harris: Serena's call to end. The booing finally reduced the volume and the temperature inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The crowd gave Naomi a loud ovation, but it was too late. She was clearly crushed. 


Announcer: And now our champion, Naomi Osaka. 


Cecil Harris: When ESPN's Tom Rinaldi announced her name, Naomi could barely muster a smile. But she accepted the trophy. She took a step forward and held it over her head with both hands. 


Announcer: Naomi, after the semifinal win, you said you had a dream. And the dream was one day from when I used to sit up in the upper bowl here and watch Grand Slam tennis that you would have a chance to play in a finals match and perhaps even against Serena Williams. How does the reality compare with the dream? 


Naomi Osaka: I'm going to sort of defer from your question. Sorry.  I know that. Everyone was cheering for her. I'm sorry to end like this. I just wanna say, thank you for watching the match. 


Cecil Harris: The day after this match, my story made the front page of the New York Daily News. It was the first time ever that women's tennis was featured on the front page. Despite all the controversy surrounding the match, the 2018 US Open final was shocking to me for a completely different reason. We've seen Serena face something not totally unlike what Naomi faced at this U.S. Open final. Remember, in 2001, the crowd at Indian Wells booed Serena throughout the match. And after winning the final, Serena took the microphone and said this. 


Serena Williams: Yeah, I would like to thank everyone that supported me. And they did. And I love you guys anyway. And thank you. 


Cecil Harris: I love you anyway. 17 years later, when the crowd is booing and jeering someone else, Serena told them to stop. She told them that Naomi played an amazing match, that she was the champion and deserved to win. That Serena, the same gracious person in 2001 and in 2018. It's America that sees her differently and more accurately now. All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chan and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Joanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchie, and Manolo Morales. Fact Checking by Kelvin C. Bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis Wright Tremaine. I'm your host, Cecil Harris.