Naomi Osaka, While Rallying for Social Justice, Wins U.S. Open Title

Naomi Osaka had just come back to secure her second United States Open singles title. She had tapped rackets with Victoria Azarenka, thanked the chair umpire and consulted with a WTA Tour media official about the commitments to come.

Only then did she take a moment to reflect on the victory, 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 wide open as she gazed skyward — all alone — for nearly 20 seconds.

There was much for her to savor in the tournament’s confines over the last three weeks, much to ponder as well as she took on not only some of the toughest tennis players in the world but some of the thorniest social issues, as well.

She handled the pressure on both fronts and returned to the fore in women’s tennis with Saturday’s gritty 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory. She wore seven different masks with different names for each of her matches to honor Black victims of violence. She walked on court Saturday 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.

The last player to manage it was Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, who rallied to defeat Steffi Graf in 1994.

Tour officials responded by canceling the entire day of play and Osaka went on to reach the final, withdrawing with a left hamstring injury before facing Azarenka.

The hamstring was still strapped on Saturday as she came back to beat Azarenka in the final.

Azarenka, 31, from Belarus, lost to Serena Williams in classic U.S. Open finals in 2012 and 2013 but rallied to defeat the 38-year-old Williams in a ferociously contested semifinal on Thursday and started just as convincingly on Saturday.

Azarenka was unseeded and had not won a tour match in nearly a year before arriving in New York, but she is hardly a tennis outsider. She was No. 1 for 51 weeks in 2012 and 2013 and won two Australian Open singles titles before Williams reasserted herself at the top of the women’s game, and Azarenka dropped back.

She had injuries, painful breakups with boyfriends and coaches and, most traumatically, a lengthy and bitter custody dispute over her now 3-year-old son, Leo, who stayed with Azarenka and her mother and team at a private home she rented near the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the tournament.

She would have been the first mother to win a Grand Slam singles title since Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open in 2011. As Azarenka dominated the opening set, hitting nearly every first serve in play and controlling the rallies, it appeared she might win in a hurry. Osaka threw her racket at one stage in frustration as her unforced errors piled up.

“I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour,” Osaka said, explaining that she told herself to “stop having a really bad attitude.”

Her mood and game improved dramatically as the final progressed, while Azarenka failed to sustain her level of play. After losing the second set and falling behind 1-4 in the third, Azarenka made one more surge, battling through a five-deuce game to hold serve and then breaking Osaka’s serve in the next game to close the gap to 3-4.

But at 30-30 on Azarenka’s serve in the next game, the match turned for good as Osaka won a high-velocity rally to get a break point and then converted it as Azarenka lined up a forehand, went for an inside-out winner and missed just wide.

Osaka, who has yet to lose a major final, then closed out the victory by holding serve as Azarenka’s last shot, a backhand, struck the net to end a 13-shot rally. Osaka tapped rackets with Azarenka at the net — another sign of these changed times — and then lay down on her back.

“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,” she explained.

That seemed an appropriate approach at a tournament where staying safe was the top priority, as players were tested for the virus regularly and restricted to their lodging and the tournament site.

“It’s not easy times in the world right now,” Azarenka said, holding back tears in her post-match speech in the near-empty stadium. “So I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play in front of millions of people watching on TV, unfortunately not here.”

Osaka, who will rise to No. 3 in the rankings on Monday, has quickly become one of the biggest stars in international sports and was the highest paid female athlete over the last year, supplanting Williams on the Forbes list with earnings estimated at $37.4 million.

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