Minutes after Victoria Azarenka slapped a backhand shot into the net at match point, Naomi Osaka lay down on the Arthur Ashe stadium court at the U.S. Open and stared upward, seemingly in a moment of meditation.
“I was thinking about all the times I’ve watched the great players … collapse on the ground and look up into the sky,” Osaka said. “I’ve always wanted to see what they saw. It was really an incredible moment. I’m really glad I did it.”
No. 4 seed Osaka climbed a step higher on her own ladder of greatness Saturday rallying to beat Azarenka, of Belarus, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final. The 22-year-old Japanese also has won the 2019 Australian Open and the 2018 U.S. Open. She claimed those two titles before the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected worldwide more than 27 million people and caused the deaths of close to a million, changed the world in which we live.
“This (U.S. Open victory) feels different overall because of the circumstances,” Osaka said. “I wasn’t in a bubble last time. There were a lot of fans last time. In the end all I focused on was what I can control on the tennis court. That’s what I did last time. I feel like that’s what I did this time.”
Actually, it took a while for the real Osaka to show up. She lost the first set, 1-6, committing 13 unforced errors, began the second set losing her first service game and had two minor temper tantrums before the fog lifted. “I just thought to myself, ‘Don’t lose 6-1, 6-0, give her a slight run for her money.’” Osaka said. “I just sort of ran with that line of thinking.”
Said Azarenka: “She started to play better, caught a few lines, had some real good shots. She was really being aggressive.”
A two-time Australian Open champion (2012-13) and former No. 1, Azarenka, 31, returned to the WTA Tour last month after a five-month absence. Venus Williams welcomed her back to the tour with a first round ouster at the Big Open Championships in Louisville, KY. Two weeks ago, she won the Western & Southern Open, in a walkover final against Osaka, who withdrew due to a hamstring injury.
Azarenka was among three of nine mothers to compete in the U.S. Open, three of whom reached the quarterfinals. Serena Williams and Tsvetana Pironkova, Bulgaria, were the other two. Azarenka earned her first berth in the U.S. Open final by ousting seven-time champion Williams 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, the same score in which Osaka defeated Azarenka. “It’s definitely been a great three weeks of tennis (for me),” Azarenka said. “I felt that I’ve tested myself, physically, mentally on different stages.” I’m very proud of myself.”
Osaka, 22, left New York just as proud, maybe more. She has been a strong supporter of the movement, Black Lives Matter. Each day she walked onto Ashe stadium wearing a mask with the name of one of seven black victims of racial injustice and police brutality over the last several years. She began with a Breonna Taylor mask, then Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and ended with Tamir Rice, 12. Basketball’s Lebron James, Lindsey Vonn (skiing), and tennis’ Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were among the Sports World’s superstars who congratulated her on Sunday’s victory. On twitter, Navratilova wrote, “Social justice and sports do mix – and quite nicely- congratulations @naomiosaka !!! #USOpen2020 Champion!!!”
“I think I’m a vessel at this point,” Osaka said “ … to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully, I can help with anything that they need.”
Osaka said she was inspired by Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers superstar, who died with his daughter, Gianna,13 and others in a helicopter crash last January.
“I just want to be the type of person that he thought I was going to be. He thought I was going to be great. Hopefully, I will be great in the future. Only time will tell.”