(CNN)It’s the night before the 2018 US Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, and coach Sascha Bajin was struggling to sleep.
“My mind was going at 200 miles per hour,” recalled Bajin, a former long-time hitting partner of Williams and Osaka’s coach in 2018. “In the city that supposedly never sleeps, this was insomnia of the worst kind.”
When he finally dozed off, the 35-year-old German had a few nightmares.
“They were still in my head in the morning: both had been about controversies during the final,” he said in his book, “Strengthen Your Mind: 50 Habits for Mental Change,” ghostwritten in English by Mark Hodgkinson.
“The first nightmare involved some controversy with Serena on the court, and the second was about an argument that I got into with Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.”
A few hours later, as he headed to the US Open site in Flushing Meadows with Osaka and the rest of her team, Bajin told them: “”I think there’s going to be some kind of big drama in the final. But don’t worry, in both of those nightmares Naomi still won, so we’re good.’ Looking back, it’s like I had a premonition of what was going to happen inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
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He did indeed.
On Saturday evening, Osaka halted Williams’ quest for a record-tying 24th major with a dominant 6-2 6-4 win in just one hour, 19 minutes.
But Osaka’s grand slam breakthrough, beating her idol on her home soil to become Japan’s first major singles winner, will forever be remembered for a huge row between Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos. It left the 20-year-old Osaka in tears during the trophy ceremony as parts of the 23,000-strong crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium booed the officials.
After the match, Williams accused the experienced Ramos of double standards, igniting a global debate about sexism in sports.
Having been outplayed by Osaka in the first set, the controversy started when Ramos handed the then 36-year-old American a warning for receiving coaching from Mouratoglou from the stands in the first game of the second set.
Williams went up to the umpire chair, and told Ramos: “I understand why you may have thought that was coaching, but I’m telling you that it’s not. I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
Steve Flink, an American tennis writer, historian and broadcaster who was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017, was sitting right behind the umpire’s chair during the match.
“The first outburst over the coaching, I could hear it loud and clear, and I could see what was unfolding, and I didn’t like the feeling at all,” Flink told CNN Sport.
Flink was surprised by Williams’ reaction to the warning.
“She kept saying, ‘I don’t cheat.’ But that’s not what he was saying. He was saying, ‘You got coaching, you are getting a warning.’ She knows the difference. She knows that you are responsible for your coach. If you don’t want him signalling, you tell him before the match, ‘don’t do it.'”
“That’s when I worried,” said Flink. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is so out of control,’ and she was now riling the crowd up. Because when the crowd, who doesn’t really understand what’s going on anyway, sees the player, they almost automatically get behind the player, particularly an American player at the US Open. They used to do this with [Jimmy] Connors and [John] McEnroe, too.”
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Having taken a 3-1 lead in the second set, Williams cracked her racket after she was unable to hold. Because it was the second violation, it led to an automatic point penalty.
The situation soon escalated.
Once she realized Ramos had not taken back the first warning, and instead she had been penalized a point, Williams lost her cool, furiously telling him: “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life.”
Shouting and pointing her finger at Ramos during the changeover at 4-3 down, she called him a “liar” and a “thief” for taking away a point. His integrity as an impartial umpire now questioned, the Portuguese responded by docking Williams an entire game for verbal abuse. All of a sudden she was 5-3 down, a game away from defeat.
With the crowd now loudly booing, Williams asked to speak with tournament referee Brian Earley and supervisor Donna Kelso. An emotional Williams accused Ramos of double standards, saying, “There are men out here that do a lot worse…but because I am a woman, you are going to take this away from me?”
“What was she expecting them to do?,” said Flink. “She knew that the umpire was within his rights, so they are going to overturn him for something he had every right to do? I have to say, I really interpreted that as gamesmanship.”
Sitting courtside, Bajin also sensed a change in the crowd after the game penalty.
“That was when the crowd went mad; they just wanted to see more tennis, and didn’t understand what was happening between Serena and Ramos,” said Bajin, the 2018 WTA coach of the year.
Bajin was upset by the crowd’s behavior, calling them “inconsiderate.” He was also concerned about the impact the poisonous atmosphere may have on Osaka as she was just one game away from winning the biggest title of her life.
He need not have worried. Serving for the championship at 5-4, after Williams had held in the previous game, Osaka kept a cool head.
“She took the title with a big serve out wide which Serena couldn’t return,” said Bajin. “Under enormous pressure, Naomi had served it out like a champion.”
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Williams, a former world No. 1, was eventually fined $17,000 by US Open organizers for the three violations. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar last month, Williams said she had started seeing a therapist after the final, and had sent Osaka a letter of apology.
“There’s never been a final quite like it, where the focus was so much on player behavior, conduct, rules, officiating,” said Flink, who has been on court for every US Open final, bar one, since 1965.
“There were no improper rulings, there were just strict enforcements of the rules,” said Flink, adding that Ramos was known to have been strict with players in the past. “Once she did the racket, and once she called him a ‘thief’ and all of that stuff, she gave him no choice.”
Although Ramos declined numerous interview requests from the world’s media to give his side of the story, he told Portuguese paper Tribuna Expresso a week after the final: “I am good, under the circumstances. It’s an unhappy situation but a-la-carte refereeing doesn’t exist. Don’t you worry about me!”
Talking to US broadcaster ESPN for a documentary released this week about the final, Mouratoglou said it was the first time he had ever sent a coaching signal to Williams. He didn’t think she saw his hand gesture.
“It was probably one of the biggest moments of her career,” said the Frenchman, who has guided Williams to 10 major singles titles since they started working together in 2012. “She was in a grand slam final to equal the record of all times. And she’s losing, and I feel at that moment she’s lost on the court. So I try to help her. That’s my job.”
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Although Mouratoglou told ESPN the final had been “horrible” for Serena and her team, he also labeled it “the best moment for tennis for the last 10 years,” because it had touched people.
Still, the drama surrounding the US Open final had a profound impact on Osaka.
Although Williams tried to comfort her during a deeply awkward trophy ceremony, asking the crowd to stop booing, the controversy robbed Osaka of what should have been one of the most joyous moments of her life.
“I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” Osaka told the crowd.
“That victory didn’t turn out as Naomi had imagined it,” said Bajin, whose coaching job with Osaka ended after they won a second major together at the Australian Open in January. “She had dreamed about defeating Serena, but not like that.”
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Shortly after the trophy ceremony in New York, Bajin told Osaka how proud he was of her. They hugged, and he started crying.
“That was the last time that Naomi and I spoke about that match,” Bajin said. “For the rest of the time we worked together, she didn’t want to talk about the US Open, and I respected that: it was the biggest achievement of her career to date, and it went unmentioned between us.”