Real reason behind Osaka’s tears
THEY say you should never meet your heroes because they're sure to disappoint you.
But the most heartbreaking aspect of Sunday's extraordinary US Open final against Serena Williams for Naomi Osaka - and the moment which brought her to tears in her post-match press conference - was that she had to disappoint hers.
It could have been anyone on the other side of the net during Williams' emotional meltdown but it's particularly tragic it was the 20-year-old from Japan.
Not just because her historic first ever grand slam win by a Japanese player was overshadowed, but because of how difficult it was for her personally to deny Williams an arguably even bigger piece of history.
That was the real reason behind Osaka's apology to the crowd during the trophy ceremony. The fan inside her wanted Williams to win as badly as anyone seated inside Arthur Ashe Arena.
"Your question is making me emotional," said Osaka, when she was asked to explain her podium apology at her post-match press conference.
"Because I know she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It's on the commercials, it's everywhere.
"When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I'm not a Serena fan. I'm just a tennis player playing another tennis player.
"But then when I hugged her at the net (tearing up) … when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again."
Osaka isn't just a regular Williams fan either.
Born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka was only a year old when the American won her first grand slam in 1999. Her entire life has been lived during Williams' era of greatness.
The family moved to the US when she was three and in the third grade she did a school project about Williams. "I coloured it and everything," Osaka said. "I said 'I want to be like her'."
On her rise to a career-high world ranking of No. 7, Osaka followed a simple mantra during her matches. "Sometimes when I'm in a really important position, when I'm serving, I'm like, 'What would Serena do?'" she revealed after winning her first WTA tournament in Indian Wells earlier this year.
"She's the main reason why I started playing tennis and I have seen her on TV so many times and I have always been cheering for her."
The pair played against each other for the first time at the Miami Open in March. It was Williams' fourth match back after having an extremely difficult pregnancy and Osaka won 6-3 6-2 in a similar scoreline to Sunday's final.
"I was extremely nervous coming on to the court. I don't know if anybody knows this but Serena is my favourite player," Osaka said after that match. "So just playing against her is kind of like a dream for me. I'm very grateful I was able to play her and it is even better that I was able to win."
She needed just three letters "OMG" to sum up the experience on Instagram.
It was the same this week in New York.
As Osaka was serving to save 13 break points in her semi-final against Madison Keys, she kept telling herself how much she wanted to play Williams, who was already waiting in the final.
After securing a 6-2 6-4 win she was asked if she had anything to say to her next opponent. "I love you," was the short and sweet answer.
Osaka later revealed how "when I was a little kid, I always dreamt that I would play Serena in a final of a grand slam".
She never would have dreamt it went the way it did.
But despite Williams' behaviour drawing strong criticism from some corners, Osaka insisted her view of her hero had not been tarnished.
"I'm always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn't change anything for me," she said. "She was really nice to me, like, at the net and on the podium. I don't really see what would change."
Hopefully she is also able to hear what Williams had to say about her younger opponent during her own press conference.
"I felt like she played really well," Williams said. "Like I said, she made a lot of shots. She was so focused. Whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve. Honestly, there's a lot I can learn from her from this match."
That's beyond any kid's dreams.