No matter what prize we seek, trade we ply, or goals we set for ourselves, we all want to know this: Is there an 'X' factor, something we can count on in each and every circumstance to be the difference maker? The answer is a simple yet emphatic yes. And Saturday's U.S. Open Women's final between legend Serena Williams and little-known Naomi Osaka was a perfect reminder of just how powerful one oft undervalued factor can be: composure.
The Quiet Power Of Composure
The lesson of just how instrumental composure is in success could be easily missed. A typical headline from the last 36 hours features words like "controversy," "implosion," "anger," even "discrimination." By degrees all of that occurred. When it did, it largely overshadowed the brilliance of play exhibited by the barely 20-year-old Osaka in her first ever major final. Her skill had left Williams flat-footed and fighting for her rightful place through most of the match. But suddenly it was the insinuation of cheating, the racket throwing, the warnings and penalties, the tears, the appearance of referees on the court, and the ceaseless booing of fans that drew the attention away and nearly eclipsed a larger lesson.
All the while that Serena Williams cascaded into an uncommon and understandable meltdown on the court, there stood Osaka, ready to go back to business. She was, in every way, composed. Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise. Osaka had been this way in every match leading up to the final. She never expressed frustration when she had the right to. She didn't gloat each time she toppled a ranked player as she did repeatedly for the better part of three weeks of matches. Even in her post-game interviews she kept her comments and her focus on the game, on the privilege she felt to have played her opponents, and on the joy she was feeling doing her job.
A Force To Raise All Boats
When the world feel apart briefly at Center Court in Flushing Meadows, New York, Osaka stuck to her greatest asset in a pressure-filled and fiercely competitive environment: composure. She stayed composed enough to continue to play gifted tennis when the championship match eventually resumed, self-possessed enough to go on to win it, and in control of enough equilibrium to graciously wade through the circus. But even that was only the beginning of the lesson she taught us all.
When the match was over and the awards presentation began, the scene itself remained unsettled - except for Osaka. She stood in the middle of it all, quiet and composed, even as she covertly wiped the occasional tear away from her cheek. The crowd was still booing. The officials awkwardly stood on the dais, palpably and nervously watching their feet. And a still stunned Serena stood there too, right beside Osaka, clearly searching for what to do next. And then Williams did it. She regained her own composure.
We'll never know for sure, but in a quick moment when Serena saw Osaka's tears and leaned in to hug her, it was if the lesson was reignited in the veteran by the example of the newcomer.
Suddenly Serena was taking the baton, telling the crowd that this was a grand moment for her opponent, and that the fans needed to stop booing the circumstances and respect Osaka's skill and victory. The presenter too seemed to back off whatever plan he might have had for dealing with the chaos and let the two players guide him. When it was Osaka's turn, she doubled down on composure. She talked not of how it felt to win, but of what an honor it had been to play Serena that day and to play for the fans all week long. The athletes' actions didn't magically erase what had happened, but they did allow the moment to rise above and move forward. All of it began in the quiet composure Naomi Osaka demonstrated before millions of viewing eyes worldwide. What she did wasn't simply powerful it was contagious.
The Real Secret Of What Makes A Champion
In the coming weeks, there will surely be debate about what happened in this match. It will likely center on fairness, rules, and equality and be served up with a healthy serving of he said-she said. In the coming years, every time Naomi Osaka's first grand slam title is mentioned, frustratingly the nitty gritty minutia of controversy and "what might have been" will briefly rise again. The real crime would be losing the lesson that, absent composure, even the greatest assets, skills, and plans do not make a champion.