Japan’s public broadcaster NHK broke into its regular news programme to flash the news of Naomi Osaka’s thrilling comeback against Victoria Azarenka on Saturday on Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the 22-year old recovered from a set and a break down to win her second US Open title, 1-6 6-3 6-3.
I feel like everything sort of pushed me to be better. I think I played some really good tennis this week, and I can be happy about that. I also think everything off the court was definitely building up. I had some moments where I was very stressed out. Honestly, I was learning a lot during all these matches that I played in the Open. But I think all in all it's the person that's very mentally strong. For me, it's one step forward because I always wanted to be that type of person. Naomi Osaka
“I feel like two years ago, I maybe would have folded being down a set and a break,” Osaka said after the match, recalling the differences between Saturday’s win and her first in 2018.
“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.”
Azarenka, a former World No 1 who came into the tournament in New York unseeded, got off to a flying start against the 4th seed, dominating from the outset and not allowing Osaka any glimpse of a chance to find he rhythm.
Her serve was on fire as she made 25 of her first 28 first deliveries, calmly running Osaka wide and generating success off her wicked slice.
After a painful 7-year drought, Azarenka, now a mother, hit her stride, controlling the middle of the court for most of the opening 30 minutes with her relentless brand of baseline tennis, and it looked as though the Belarusian would roll on to her 3rd Grand Slam singles title as she built a 6-1, 2-0 lead, with a game point on serve for 3-0.
In 25 years, no woman had come back to win the Open after losing the first set, but underestimating Osaka is a perilous pursuit, and despite dropping her racket and looking to the sky, the Japanese’s hidden reserves began to surface, plus she had never lost at a Grand Slam once she had reached a quarter-final.
“In the first set, I thought she was playing great,” Osaka said. “Honestly, I felt like there was nothing I could do. In the second set, I just kept trying for every point.
“I think in the first set, I was so nervous, I wasn’t moving my feet. I felt like I was not playing—not that I expect myself to play 100 percent, but it would be nice if I could even play, like, 70 percent. I just felt like I was too much in my own head.
“Then in the second set, of course I was down early, which really didn’t help me out.
“I just thought to myself to be positive, don’t lose 6-1, 6-0, hopefully give her a slight run for her money. I just sort of ran with that line of thinking.”
Osaka fights back
Billie Jean King made famous the line ‘champions adjust’, which many repeated on social media as they followed the gripping contest on television, the only way most to take in the Open this year without fans in the stands.
Vika blinked, offering up 2 forehand errors to open the door, Osaka broke back, and her uncanny confidence flooded back.
Finding her range in the second, she stepped up and was more aggressive as her serve came alive, and she drilled her forehand like a cannon, beginning to redirect the ball with ease and winning many of the long, dramatic power battles.
As quickly as she had fallen behind, Osaka drew level, winning 6 of 7 games to fight back and send the match to a final set.
The Belarusian’s serve failed to rule as it had, giving the Japanese control over the rallies, and she took the second set 6-3, and then raced to a 3-1 lead in the third.
“I would say a really important game was definitely the game that I broke her in the third set,” Osaka said. “I’m glad that I did it earlier on because I felt like, later down the line, it would have gotten really tight for me.”
With her back against the wall in the third, Azarenka authored late resistance, saving a trio of break points in the 6th game, where losing any one of them would have seen her trail, 5-1.
She later denied Osaka a pair of game points that would have seen her lead 5-2, but Azarenka turned the decider on its head and got back on serve.
Osaka didn’t waver, hitting even bigger to break Azarenka again, and served for the match.
“The break, maybe in the beginning of the second set, she started to play better. Caught a few lines, had some really good shots,” Azarenka said later. “She was being really aggressive. I don’t know if there was just one momentum shift.
“I felt there were a few moments that were shifting, even in the second set… I didn’t convert my chances, but I felt like I was kind of changing the momentum but I didn’t really finish it.
“I don’t think there was only one. I think in the third set also I started to come back and stuff. It was a lot of tight moments where [it] didn’t work out for me today.
“I did everything I could today. Could I have played better? I think I could. But I left everything I could on the court today.
“She won the match. All the credit to Naomi. She’s a champion.”
After an hour and 53 minutes, on her 2nd championship point as Azarenka backhand dropped tamely into the net, Osaka fell to the ground in the empty arena, her 3rd major title in the bag.
There is joy in Japan as Osaka’s history-making campaign in New York hits the headlines in more ways than one.
She is the first woman to rally from a set down to win the singles championship match since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994.
She is also the first Asian player to win 3 Grand Slam singles titles, breaking the tie she held with China’s Li Na.
With the victory, she also returns to the Top 3 in the WTA rankings, moving back up to World No 3.
In a three-week span that saw her shine off the court just as much as she did on it, the Japanese No 1 further cemented her status as a superstar, not just in women’s tennis, but international sport as a whole.
“I feel like everything sort of pushed me to be better. I think I played some really good tennis this week, and I can be happy about that,” Osaka said. “I also think everything off the court was definitely building up. I had some moments where I was very stressed out.
“Honestly, I was learning a lot during all these matches that I played in the Open.
“But I think all in all it’s the person that’s very mentally strong. For me, it’s one step forward because I always wanted to be that type of person.”
Media and officials in Japan have broadly welcomed her campaigning for victims of racial injustice and against police brutality.
“The victory embodied the feeling of bereaved families who hope to prevent a repeat of tragedies and change society,” the Mainichi Shimbun daily said.
Osaka walked onto the court before the final wearing a mask bearing the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot dead by a white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014.
Of Japanese and Haitian heritage, she has worn different masks for each of her 7 matches in the tournament, honouring victims of racial injustice and police brutality.
“She is brave. I’m proud of her,” Osaka’s 75-year-old grandfather, Tetsuo Osaka, told reporters of her stand.
Fumio Kishida, one of three candidates to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tweeted: “I respect her as she fought it out and showed the best result, bringing up the importance of diversity to the world. I’m greatly encouraged.”
The Mainichi daily, however, reported mixed reactions from some sponsors in Japan: “I don’t think she needed to do that while she’s fighting her way to the top. If possible, we’d like her to attract more attention with her tennis skills,” said a source linked to a Japanese corporate sponsor of Osaka’s, according to the daily.
During her on-court interview after the match Osaka said: “It was a tough match for me, but it was amazing to have the opportunity to play you [Azarenka] here.
“Thank you to my team for believing in me and to the organisers for providing a safe environment.”
Osaka was asked during the interview what the turning point in the match was and she said: “I thought it would be embarrassing to lose it in less than an hour so I decided I would have to change my attitude.”
During her on-court interview Azarenka said it had been a ‘fun’ tournament and added: “Congratulations to Naomi – it has been an incredible two weeks for you, I am very happy for you.
“I want to thank the United States Tennis Association and everyone who made this tournament happen.
“I want to thank my team for sticking with me and believing in me.”
The tournament was played behind closed doors owing to the coronavirus pandemic, with organisers creating a ‘bubble’ around the Flushing Meadows site in New York.
Disappointment for Azarenka
For her part, Azarenka admitted her disappointment, but was at ease. “When things don’t go your way, it’s more fun to figure it out rather than being like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in trouble, what am I going to do?’
“That is more fun because I’m looking for solutions…My mentality [in recent times] has been a lot more fun.”
The 31-year old lost to Serena Williams in classic US Open finals in 2012 and 2013 but rallied to defeat the 38-year-old Williams in a ferociously contested semi-final on Thursday and started just as convincingly on Saturday.
Unseeded she had not won a tour match in nearly a year before arriving in New York, but 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 USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the tournament.
She would have been the first mother to become a Grand Slam singles champion since Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open in 2011.
“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.”
Azarenka will shrug off the disappointment soon enough: “When you’re young, you have some not so great people around you who put you into this tunnel vision: ‘Don’t look right, don’t look left’.
“You’re becoming this focused machine as a tennis player…You’re kind of missing the point of living.”
Osaka, in her gentle but powerful way, has been making a point or two about living, noting: ‘I’ve definitely tried to mature. I feel the lessons I learned definitely developed me as a person.
“The point is to make people start talking,” said Osaka.