Someday, Naomi Osaka may win one of these under “normal” circumstances.
Two years ago, controversy and boos marred the celebration of her first U.S. Open title. On Saturday in New York, there weren’t any fans at all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Osaka completed a nearly flawless two weeks of tennis with a tight three-set win over Victoria Azarenka to capture her third major title.
The Japanese national bounced back from a shaky start to prevail 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
“I just thought it would be really embarrassing to lose this in under an hour so I just have to try as hard as I can,” she said during the post-match trophy presentation when asked about her comeback from a set down.
When it was all over and the players had tapped rackets, Osaka carefully laid on the court and looked skyward, perhaps reflecting on a whirlwind few weeks that saw her garner acclaim for her performance on the court and her stand against racial injustice off it.
“I always see everyone collapse after match point. But I was thinking ‘you may injure yourself’ so I wanted to do it safely,” she said with her typical quirkiness.
She elaborated on the moment in her post-match news conference.
“I was thinking about all the times I’ve watched the great players sort of collapse onto the ground and look up into the sky. I’ve always wanted to see what they saw. For me, it was really an incredible moment. I’m really glad I did it.”
Starting in the first round with the name of Breonna Taylor — a Black woman who was shot and killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, home — Osaka wore a mask with the names of Black American victims of racial profiling and police brutality to each of her matches.
The names of Elijah McLain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile followed. On Saturday, she entered the stadium wearing a mask with the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.
When asked after the match what message she was hoping to send, she turned the question back on the interviewer and those watching at home.
“Well what was the message you got is more the question. The point is to make people start talking,” she said.
Osaka spent the last two weeks in New York dictating just about every facet of every match.
At the start of the final, she got a taste of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a dominant performance.
The unseeded Azarenka set the tone early with a break in the opening game, capitalizing on an ill-timed Osaka double fault to draw first blood. Matching Osaka’s power shot for shot and moving her younger opponent around the court at will, the Belarussian broke again in Osaka’s third service game to take a commanding 4-1 first-set lead.
Osaka showed her first sign of frustration in the sixth game of the match, throwing her racket onto the court when she made what was already her 11th unforced error. Altogether she piled up 13 errors in the first set and was broken three times in the rout.
It was more of the same from Azarenka at the start of the second set. She broke Osaka’s serve for the fourth time — at one point serving at 40-30 with a chance to go up 3-0 — before the Japanese responded in kind with a break of her own.
That break, coming just as the match seemed to be getting way from her, turned the tide for the No. 4 seed Osaka. Cleaner hitting and a dip in form from Azarenka gave her further momentum.
With Azarenka serving to stay in the second set, Osaka ripped a return winner at 40-40 to tee up an ultimately successful set point. Osaka thumped 16 of her 34 winners in the second frame against just five unforced errors.
With momentum firmly on Osaka’s side of the court, the players traded holds to open the third frame. Azarenka stumbled in her second service game, which included an ill-timed double fault of her own to help give Osaka the break.
The Belarussian’s last gasp came in the form of a break at 2-4 to get back on serve. But Osaka wrestled momentum back the very next game with a break-back and then a hold to clinch the championship.
Asked at the news conference how she would celebrate the win, Osaka said she would take some time to “process” it more than she did after her previous two major titles.
“Hopefully the more times I win Grand Slams, I’ll be able to celebrate better.”
Perhaps with an eye toward relishing the championship, Osaka was noncommittal about the rest of her 2020 schedule, including the delayed French Open, which begins Sept. 28 in Paris.
“I was planning to play (the French Open) when I came here but I guess I’ll see what happens,” she said.
She later added that the coronavirus-induced break was “an important few months” for her, giving her a chance to reset for the first time since her 2018 win.
“For me my life was always go-go and especially after the previous U.S. Open that I won,” she said. “I’ve never had a chance to slow down so the quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by.”
Given the month she has just had, how Osaka will be remembered is becoming quite clear: As a champion and role model.
Reactions to Naomi Osaka’s victory
Peers, celebs and Osaka herself had a thing or two to tweet about after she took her second U.S. Open title. Here are a few:
this is crazy. pic.twitter.com/r3BBW0Elng
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) September 13, 2020
I wore this jersey every day after my matches. I truly think it gave me strength. Always 💛💜 pic.twitter.com/R1pTUCaCgq
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) September 13, 2020
— Kei Nishikori (@keinishikori) September 12, 2020
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) September 12, 2020
GREAT COMEBACK!! Congrats @naomiosaka! 🙏🏾✊🏾
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 12, 2020
Congrats to @naomiosaka 🤗💫 and thank you for using your platform ✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾
— sloanestephens (@SloaneStephens) September 13, 2020
🏆 @naomiosaka raised her voice on her way to 2nd #USOpen title, honoring victims of racism and police brutality:
✊🏾 Breonna Taylor
✊🏾 Elijah McClain
✊🏾 Ahmaud Arbery
✊🏾 Trayvon Martin
✊🏾 George Floyd
✊🏾 Philando Castile
✊🏾 Tamir Rice pic.twitter.com/oJxxBWuA2g
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) September 12, 2020
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) September 12, 2020