Naomi Osaka ended Victoria Azarenka’s dream run to claim her second U.S. Open title in three years with a 1-6 6-3 6-3 comeback win on Saturday which cemented her status as the sport’s leading light both on and off the court.
Unlike the 22-year-old Japanese’s first U.S. Open win in 2018 over Serena Williams, which was played in a frothing Arthur Ashe Stadium, Saturday’s drama unfolded in a strangely quiet arena as COVID-19 health and safety protocols prevented fans from entering the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
But the lack of buzz around the stands did not stop the two former world number ones from producing a dazzling display of shot making.
As Osaka walked off with a third Grand Slam title, Azarenka was denied a U.S. Open crown for a third time having also finished runner-up in 2012 and 2013.
Still it was a remarkable and unexpected run for the 31-year-old Belarusian, who reached her first major final in seven years.
It was the second time in two weeks Azarenka, twice a winner at the Australian Open, and Osaka had set up a final showdown. The pair had been set to meet in the Western and Southern Open final on Aug. 29 until Osaka withdrew due to a hamstring injury.
“I actually don’t want to play you in more finals,” Osaka told Azarenka with a smile during the victory ceremony.
“I didn’t really enjoy that.
“That was a really tough match for me.
As they celebrated Naomi Osaka’s victory in the final of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows on Saturday, Tokyoites were eager to embrace their heroines’ stand against racial injustice.
Osaka, who won her third Grand Slam title with victory over Victoria Azarenka, has used her platform to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, wearing a mask bearing the name of a different Black American before each of her seven matches in the championship.
Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, has become the face of a changing Japan coming to terms with challenges to its self-image as a racially homogenous society.
Her efforts on and off the court in New York were welcomed by Tokyoites on Sunday.
“I jumped for joy (at her win),” said Kazuyoshi Hosoya, who was looking to buy an edition of a newspaper celebrating Osaka’s win.
“I know she is protesting and I have heard on TV that she was doing her best to use all the seven face masks (by reaching the final).”
“I think this is amazing that she actually accomplished using all the seven masks.”
Osaka’s strident views on social media have made her an icon for many young Japanese.
“I am very happy that Naomi, who is an influential person, said ‘Black Lives Matter’ in a public place,” said 16-year-old Mari Maeda.
“I am happy that her message was received not only in the U.S. but also the world, including Japan.”
A report in Japanese newspaper Mainichi on Friday cited unnamed sources at one of her sponsors as criticising her BLM stance, saying they would prefer her to concentrate on tennis.
With her win in New York, Osaka cannot be accused of letting her activism become a distraction and going by the comments of those in Tokyo on Sunday, the sponsor may have misjudged public sentiment.
“Including myself, I think there are many people who are not interested in a topic like racism,” said office worker Masateru Tanimoto.
“But (Osaka) has created an opportunity to open the topic…
“Although people may agree or disagree, I think it is a good thing that the issue has become a topic of discussion.”