Speaking out in an interview on Monday morning, U.S. Open women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka said she sympathized with the audibly disappointed crowd in Queens on Saturday night after her dramatic defeat of Serena Williams.
“I felt a little bit sad because I wasn’t really sure if they were booing at me or if it wasn’t the outcome that they wanted,” Osaka, 20, told Today‘s Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb in her first-ever talk show appearance. “And then I also could sympathize because I’ve been a fan of Serena my whole life and I knew how badly the crowd wanted her to win.”
On Saturday, Osaka bested Williams, 36, after a match in which the umpire gave the 23-time Grand Slam champion three violations. During the tournament, Williams said to referee Brian Earley, “Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me?”
At the emotional trophy ceremony that followed, the crowd could be heard booing loudly. Osaka tilted her cap down and began to cry. Williams, standing next to her, wrapped her arm around Osaka in a comforting gesture.
“I felt really happy because I sort of felt like she knew that I was crying,” Osaka told the Today hosts. “And she was saying some things, it just made me happy overall.”
Amid the boos on Saturday, Williams told the crowd to give Osaka her moment, prompting the young athlete to say, “I know that everyone was cheering for her. I’m sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”
Asked on Today why she apologized for her victory, Osaka said, “I just felt like everyone was sort of unhappy up there. I know that the ending wasn’t how people wanted it to be. I know that in my dreams I won in a very tough, competitive match. I don’t know, I just felt very emotional, and I felt like I had to apologize.”
The U.S. Open win marked Osaka’s first Grand Slam victory — something, she admitted, “still feels a little bit surreal, but I think it’s slowly sinking in.”
Coming into the match, Osaka told Today she was “nervous” about playing the woman she once wrote a 3rd grade report about. “Right before I was walking onto the court, I was freaking out a little bit. But when I went onto the court, it didn’t feel like she was Serena. It felt like she was another player,” Osaka explained on Today.
She had a bit of experience under her belt: “Actually I was lucky enough, I’ve played her once before in Miami, and it just didn’t feel that weird because it was a Grand Slam this time. And just watching her play in Grand Slam finals before when I was a kid, it felt really different.”
During the match, chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a violation for illegal coaching from her player box during the first set. Williams told Ramos, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, said later, “I’m honest, I was coaching. I don’t think she looked at me so that’s why she didn’t even think I was.”
“But I was like 100 percent of the coaches in 100 percent of the matches, so we have to stop this hypocritical thing,” Mouratoglou added. “Sascha [Bajin, Osaka’s coach] was coaching every point, too.”
Williams’ second violation was for breaking her racket.
The athlete told Ramos during the match, “You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry… And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too!”
Ramos gave Williams her third violation for verbal abuse.
Williams was later fined $17,000 for the violations. The tournament referee’s office deducted from Williams’ $1.85 million prize money $10,000 for verbally abusing the umpire, $4,000 for receiving a warning about coaching, and $3,000 for breaking a racket, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
At a press conference ahead of the fines, Williams said that she was paving the way for future female tennis players.
Williams commented, “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [rights].”
She continued, “I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman, and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.”
Choking up, she said, “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
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In a statement provided to PEOPLE, Katrina Adams, USTA Chairman of the Board and President, said, “What Serena did on the podium today showed a great deal of class and sportsmanship. This was Naomi’s moment, and Serena wanted her to be able to enjoy it. That was a class move from a true champion.”
The statement continued, “What Serena has accomplished this year in playing her way back on to the tour is truly amazing. She continues to inspire, because she continues to strive to be the best. She owns virtually every page of the record book, but she’s never been one to rest on her laurels. She’s always working to improve; always eager to embrace new challenges; and to set new standards. She is an inspiration to me, personally, and a credit to our sport, win or lose.”
“I know that she was frustrated about the way the match played out, but the way she stepped up after the final and gave full credit to Naomi for a match well-played speaks volumes about who she is,” Adams concluded.
In another statement provided to PEOPLE, the U.S. Open described what went down on the court. The statement started, “On the fifth point in the second game of the second set between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, the chair umpire witnessed coaching taking place from Williams’ coach. Even though her coach has admitted to coaching, Williams has made it clear that she did not receive any coaching. Nevertheless, in accordance with the rules, Williams was assessed a Code Violation, resulting in a warning.”
“At the completion of the fifth game of the second set, Williams was assessed a second code violation for racquet abuse, which required a point penalty,” the U.S. Open’s statement added. “At the changeover, at 4-3, Williams was assessed a third code violation for verbal abuse in the judgment of the umpire, which then required a game penalty. The chair umpire’s decision was final and not reviewable by the Tournament Referee or the Grand Slam Supervisor who were called to the court at that time.”