Naomi Osaka said at the start of the U.S. Open that she had seven masks prepared with the names of victims of racial injustice and police brutality in the United States, one for each round of the tournament. She said she hoped to make it to the final so she could help spread awareness of the issue to the world, the latest sign of her growing activism over racial discrimination.
Her hope turned to reality Thursday night in New York with a 7-6 (7-1), 3-6, 6-3 win over American Jennifer Brady in the semifinals to secure her second appearance in the finals.
Instead of Serena Williams waiting in the final on Saturday (Sunday morning in Japan), it'll be two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who upset the 23-time grand slam champion 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the day's other semifinal.
Osaka's semifinal performance was a microcosm of her play since the start of the tournament. Playing powerful and aggressive — but controlled — tennis, Osaka has weaved her way through a draw that saw many of her top rivals falter before ever getting a chance at the No. 4 seed.
Brady, a former NCAA player who is sitting at her career high ranking of No. 40, gave Osaka her stiffest test of the tournament.
It took until Brady’s second service game of the third set for Osaka to finally find a break against the powerful American, and even that only came after an Osaka shot struck the net cord and trickled over at 15-30.
"I just felt like I was sticking it out and we were trading serves. I tried to adjust a little bit on her serve in the third set so maybe that helped," she said in a post-match on-court interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The Japanese closed out the match the way she began it, with a confident service game backed by thumping groundstrokes.
Osaka cracked 35 winners to just 17 unforced errors throughout the match while throwing in nine aces. Brady matched her blow for blow, with 35 winners and 10 aces of her own, albeit with 25 unforced errors, in a match that featured just six break point opportunities.
Osaka, who hasn’t lost a match since returning from the lengthy stoppage caused by the coronavirus — her only setback being a withdrawal in the Western & Southern Open final — set the tone with dominant serving in the first set of the semifinal, taking 21 of the 22 points played on her first serve.
"I just felt I wanted to come out of quarantine feeling positive and not really caring if I win or lose," she said after the match.
Brady, who hadn’t dropped a set on her way to the semifinal, gave up little to her higher ranked opponent in the first set until the tiebreaker, which Osaka won 7-1.
The serving clinic from both players continued in the second set until Brady, leading 4-3, found a breakthrough on just her second break chance of the match after a lengthy, bruising rally.
She confidently served out the set to put Osaka’s place in the final momentarily in doubt before the 2018 champion roared back in the third.
Osaka has garnered a lot of attention for her activism amid the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. She withdrew from the Western & Southern Open last month, before agreeing to rejoin after the tournament suspended play for an entire day, and has worn a mask with the name of a victim of police violence or racial discrimination to the court for each of her U.S. Open matches.
Her efforts are clearly resonating. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin — a 17-year-old killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida — and Marcus Arbery, the father of Ahmaud Arbery — a 25-year-old who was pursued and killed by two white residents in Georgia, thanked Osaka via video during an interview on ESPN for furthering the conversation and raising global awareness about the violence against their loved ones. Osaka wore a black mask with Ahmaud Arbery's name written in white letters ahead of her third round match and did the same for Martin for the fourth round.
"For me it's a bit surreal and it's extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I'm doing," Osaka said Tuesday. "For me I feel what I'm doing is nothing. It's a spec of what I could be doing.
"I'm really grateful and I'm really humbled."
No matter the outcome of the final, one thing is certain: There won't be any booing.
Two years ago controversy and jeering over penalties levied against Serena Williams marred the celebration of Osaka’s rise to the pinnacle of tennis, but Saturday's final will be played without fans.
Osaka showed her mental fortitude in that final, refusing to get distracted by the coaching penalty and subsequent outbursts by Williams toward chair umpire Carlos Ramos. The pressure of expectations, however, weighed heavily on her throughout much of 2019, culminating in a teary news conference following a first round Wimbledon defeat that she cut short.
She appeared to regain her confidence with a strong finish to the season, including a title at the Pan Pacific Open in Osaka, the city of her birth. Her resurgence has only continued after the coronavirus-induced break.
"I think I'm embracing the pressure and having more fun," Osaka said after the quarterfinals.
After the semifinals, she said her "mindset is much different this time around" compared to 2018.
"I feel like I've learned so much through the ups and downs, not even counting the finals but just through regular tour tournaments.
"Mentally I feel stronger. I feel fitter now."