Japanese star beats veteran for 2nd title and 3rd Grand Slam while pushing against racism
Naomi Osaka had just come back to secure a second US Open singles title and a third Grand Slam win.
She had tapped rackets with Victoria Azarenka, thanked the chair umpire and consulted a WTA Tour official about the media commitments to come.
Only then did she take a moment for herself, returning to the blue court where she became a star in 2018 and gingerly dropping to its surface, lying on her back, hands folded and eyes blinking as she gazed up through the open roof – all alone – for nearly 20 seconds.
“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,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see what they saw.”
Osaka, 22, is undoubtedly a great player already, and there was much for her to savour on many levels over the last few weeks.
Much to ponder, as well, as she took on not only some of the toughest tennis players in the world but also some of the thorniest social issues.
The Japanese, who is part Haitian and is based in the US, handled the pressure on both fronts and returned to the fore in the sport with Saturday’s gritty 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 win.
She wore seven masks with different names for each of her matches to honour black American victims of police brutality and said it motivated her as “I wanted more people to say more names”.
She walked on court with a mask bearing the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot and killed in Cleveland by a white police officer in 2014.
Her time at the top has been impactful, though her win came in radically different conditions than did her first title run in 2018.
In that Flushing Meadows final, she defeated Serena Williams in a tumultuous match that turned ugly when the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos after he called three code-of-conduct violations against her.
The crowd, upset at the treatment of Williams, booed during the awards ceremony, leaving Osaka in tears shortly after her Slam title.
But the same stadium was nearly empty on Saturday, as it has been throughout this unusual US Open where fans were not permitted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of a crowd was never a factor, though, as she gradually found her range after a very slow start, becoming the first player in 26 years to win a US women’s final after losing the first set.
With her strong physique, big serve, powerful ground strokes, Osaka appeared ready to take command of the women’s game when she won a second successive Slam title at last year’s Australian Open, becoming world No. 1 in the process.
But she surprisingly split with her coach Sascha Bajin shortly after that victory in Melbourne and struggled to recapture the same form.
The five-month Tour hiatus, however, was a boon for her, becoming deeply involved in the social justice movement, attending a rally in Minneapolis, and speaking out on social networks and elsewhere.
She also worked intently on her game and her fitness at her new base in Los Angeles with new Belgian coach Wim Fissette, who has helped Azarenka and many other leading players win big titles.
“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think about a lot of things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by,” said Osaka, who will jump six places to world No. 3 today. “It definitely helped me out.”