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Japan celebrates Osaka's breakthrough tennis triumph
JAPAN celebrated Naomi Osaka's victory over Serena Williams in the US Open final on Saturday, with fans putting her stunning success down to a steely focus and humble attitude as much as her powerful performance in New York.
Osaka, who became the first Japanese woman to clinch a Grand Slam singles title, was a picture of calm in the midst of her more experienced opponent's meltdown that cast a pall over the final.
The 20-year-old, who was born in Japan but raised in the US, beat her childhood idol 6-2 6-4 on Saturday (Sunday morning, Singapore time) in a final marred by Williams' bad behaviour after she was handed a code violation for on-court coaching.
The runner-up also smashed her racket and verbally attacked the umpire for penalising her.
"Osaka played so well that Serena wasn't able to play her tennis and she (Williams) got upset," said Mitsuko Sakai, a 63-year-old amateur tennis player who woke up at 5am on Sunday in Tokyo to watch the final.
"She remained so calm throughout the match" despite the brouhaha, Mr Sakai added. "I was very impressed by her mental strength. The entire audience seemed to cheering for Serena but Osaka concentrated on the game and won."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated Osaka on Twitter, thanking her for "giving Japan a boost of inspiration at this time of hardship" - a likely reference to the earthquake that hit the northern island of Hokkaido last Thursday, killing at least 21 people.
Japan has been charmed by Osaka's off-court humility and genuineness as much as her on-court ferocity and that unpretentiousness came through in her post-match comments.
While standing on the podium waiting to be handed her trophy, Osaka heard only boos as an angry crowd took out their frustration on umpire Carlos Ramos, whom they perceived to have been too harsh on Williams. "I know everyone was cheering for her and I'm sorry it had to end like this," said Osaka. "I just want to say thank you for watching the match."
Osaka said it was "always my dream to play Serena in the US Open final," and that "I'm really grateful I was able to play with you."
Watching from Tokyo, 60-year-old tennis fan Kiyoshi Ogawa praised Osaka's humility: "She tried to make all the attention go to Serena. That's her beauty."
Tennis is nowhere near as popular as baseball, football or sumo in Japan, and the match was broadcast 'live' only on the Wowow cable channel, not on any major television channel.
But as Osaka prepared to face Williams in the final, local media began to contemplate what victory might mean. The Yomiuri newspaper said: "The combination of her strength and childlike innocence is her charm," and hailed Osaka as "a new heroine Japan can be proud of."
Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, is also helping break new ground in Japan as her biracial identity challenges the country's self-image as a racially homogenous society.
She left Japan when she was three and was raised in New York and Florida. She holds both Japanese and American citizenship and addresses fans on camera in broken Japanese - which has helped win over the public here. REUTERS