Osaka And Azarenka Deliver A Compelling US Open Final

Finalist Victoria Azarenka and women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka (photo: Simon Bruty/USTA)

WASHINGTON, September 12, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Saturday’s US Open women’s singles final will be remembered for having the smallest crowd gathered for a title match in the world’s largest tennis venue. Blame it on the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down all of professional tennis for five months.

Yet, Arthur Ashe Stadium provided a warm and intimate yet friendly atmosphere for this year’s title match between fourth seed Naomi Osaka and unseeded Victoria Azarenka that decided the second major of 2020. Both of these two-former top-ranked players have won multiple Grand Slam titles (2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open for Osaka; 2012 and 2013 Australian Open for Azarenka). So, playing in an important, big-time match was nothing new to either of these elite competitors.

Osaka and Azarenka were supposed to play for the Western & Southern Open title next door in Louis Armstrong Stadium two weeks ago – in the New York “double in the bubble” at the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center – before Osaka withdrew citing a hamstring injury. Since then, both competitors have only looked stronger. In the semifinals on Thursday night, Osaka went the distance to beat American upstart Jennifer Brady in three hard-fought sets, then Azarenka fought off 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, also in three intense sets, to arrive in the final.

For a set, it looked like Azarenka’s title to win, but Osaka had other things to say. She’s spent the entire fortnight raising awareness about racial injustice and social inequality. On the court, she raised the level of her game the final two sets and beat Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, in one hour and 53 minutes to win her third major title and lift her second US Open trophy. She improved to 12-0 in three-set major matches.

Six-time US Open champion Chris Evert analyzed the final for ESPN. During her post-match observation, she called the final “an emotional and intense match.

“I’m very pleased with this match. I’m glad Azarenka is back. I think Osaka is going to be the new leader of the women’s game. It’s important to have someone like Naomi everyone can embrace.” The biracial Osaka is from Japan, born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. She lives and trains in the United States and maintains residences on both coasts.

During the trophy ceremony, one of the many honest observations made by the 22-year-old Osaka – and there were many – was directed to the older Azarenka, 31. “I actually don’t want to play you in more finals, I didn’t enjoy that,” she said. It drew laughter and broke the tension of the moment.

Among the story lines going in: Could Osaka would capture her second US Open title in three years, and what mask would she wear as she walked on court to play the final? And, whose winning streak would be halted, Azarenka’s 11 or Osaka’s 10?

The answers were: Yes, and Tamir Rice, honoring a 12-year-old Black boy who died after he was shot near a Cleveland, Ohio recreation center in November 2014 by a White police officer. And, it would be Azarenka’s streak that ended but not without a good fight.

Azarenka arrived at the title match having dropped just two sets in her first major final in seven years since the 2013 US Open, while Osaka came into the final having been broken just five times the entire fortnight. Guess what? Azarenka broke her three times alone to take the first set 6-1. During the 26-minute opener, Azarenka landed 16 of 17 first serves and committed just three unforced errors while outpointing Osaka 27-15.

Then, Osaka began to assert herself in the second set by landing more of her big serves in and controlled many of the rallies. She got her aggressive power game under control and in rhythm, and kept Azarenka off balance. It carried her through the rest of the match. By the end, Osaka found her consistency. She served six aces, hit 34 winners and 26 unforced errors, and broke Azarenka’s serve five times. Meanwhile, Azarenka hit 30 winners, committed 22 unforced errors and broke Osaka five times. At the end, only three points separated the winner from the loser as Osaka outpointed Azarenka 86-83.

Osaka had become the first woman to win a US Open singles title in 26 years after dropping the first set.

After the two had tapped racquets, Osaka took a moment to return to the court. She dropped to the surface, lying on her back with her hands folded and eyes wide open, gazing to the sky through the open roof above Arthur Ashe Stadium. Perhaps, Osaka was thinking about the seven worthy opponents she had beaten or all of the social issues she had tackled over the past fortnight and a half. It lasted for nearly 20 seconds before she got back up on her feet and went back to her bench to wait for the festivities to begin. Various photos shot of Osaka soon went viral on social media.

“I always see everyone sort of collapse after match point, but I always think you may injure yourself, so I wanted to do it safely,” Osaka explained soon after during the trophy ceremony.

The personalities of both players came out – Osaka’s calm, quiet and confident poise and Azarenka’s sense of laughing, talking and relaxing. It’s something she’s gotten better at doing now that life off the court is no longer affecting her results on the court.

Azarenka went first in receiving her runner-up plate. She said: “It was a lot of fun for me to play, to be in the final of the US Open. It’s not easy times in the world right now. So, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play in front of millions of people watching on TV, unfortunately not here.”

Later, during her virtual post-match interview, Azarenka reflected on her return to the sport she loves.

“I think it’s definitely been a great three weeks of tennis. I haven’t had such results in quite a long time, so I’m very excited for it. Today, it’s a loss, but it doesn’t change for me much. Of course, I would have loved to win today. It is what it is,” she said.

“I gave everything that I could today on the court. I felt that I progressed a lot. I’ve played a lot of great matches. I felt that I’ve tested myself physically, mentally on very difficult stages. It’s been great. I’m very proud of myself. I want to continue to keep going the same way, enjoy myself.”

When it was Osaka’s turn to speak, one quote of hers spoke volumes. She turned a question about her seven masks that featured the names of Black victims of violence and police brutality into a learning moment for the world. She was asked by ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi, who is White, what the message behind the masks were. Osaka turned the question around to Rinaldi.

“Well, ‘What was the message that you got?’ is more the question,” Osaka said to Rinaldi. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

With her latest title and in her words, Naomi Osaka’s world influence – both on and off the court – continues to grow positively.

Around the US Open Wheelchair Competition

By the numbers

• Naomi Osaka became the first woman to rally from a set down and win the US Open singles championship match since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994. She is also the first Asian player to win three Grand Slam singles titles, breaking the tie she held with China’s Li Na. And, with her victory, Osaka returns to the Top 3 in the world rankings, moving back up to World No. 3.

• At age 22, Naomi Osaka is the youngest three-time Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova won her third in 2008.

The quote – Naomi Osaka

In recalling the differences between Saturday’s win and her first in 2018:

“I feel like two years ago, I maybe would have folded being down a set and a break. But I think, all the matches that I played in between that time shaped me and made me or forced me to mature more. Especially all the matches that I’ve played here were very tough.

“I think definitely I’m more of a complete player now. I feel like I’m more aware of what I’m doing.”

What they’re sharing on social media

Billie Jean King / Our sport just keeps getting better!

Ava Wallace / A win is a win is a win, but …

Naomi Osaka / “The point is to make people start talking.”