Is she the new best thing in women tennis? Has the new era started? These are the questions tennis followers are asking following Naomi Osaka’s classic comeback in the final game of the U.S. Open on Saturday.
Osaka of Japan defeated Victoria Azarenka from Belarus 1/6, 6/3, 6/3 to win her second title in New York and the third Grand Slam of her career. It was a stunning performance by the fourth seeded player, who lost the first set and trailed until the middle of the second set.
It was the third time in the tournament that the 22-year old Osaka played a three-set match.
In the first round, she defeated compatriot Misaki Doi 6/2, 5/7, 6/2 and Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk 6/3, 6/7(4), 6/2 in the third round. In the semi-finals, she defeated American Jennifer Brady 7/6(1), 3/6, 6/3. But Saturday’s was a match she rescued from the jaws of defeat.
The 31-year old Azarenka had raced through the first three rounds, but lost the first set before defeating Karolina Muchova of Czech Republic 5/7, 6/1, 6/4. In the semi-finals, she achieved a 1/6, 6/3, 6/3 upset of record-seeking Serena Williams.
Osaka opened serving and lost the first point of the match. She did not register a single first serve while a double fault contributed to the service break. Her opponent delivered all first serves in taking the second game. Osaka took the third game with improved serves to register on the score board.
Azarenka continued her onslaught by taking the fourth game and breaking Osaka to lead 4-1. A third break of the Osaka serve handed Azarenka the first 6-1 after 22 minutes of play.
Osaka’s odyssey continued in the early part of the second set as she dropped the second game on her serve but forced Azarenka to deuce and registered an ace serve in taking the fourth game.
Osaka’s fortune changed in the seventh game. Serving at three-all, Azarenka opened with a double fault and followed with two consecutive forehand shots over Osaka’s baseline. She reduced the tally to 15-40, but hit a backhand shot out to concede the break.
Osaka delivered an ace serve and three winners to extend the lead to 5-3. Azarenka battled hard in the ninth game and reached game point 40-30. Taken to deuce, she faced set point and cancelled it with a yell of “Come on.” She was denied two game opportunities and lost the set when Osaka delivered a winning forehand.
In the third set, Osaka’s serves and ground-strokes landed with greater potency while Azarenka failed to make first serves. Serving at 1-2, Azarenka missed an attempted drop shot to trail 15-40 and Osaka secured the service break after her powerful shot elicited an error to end a long rally.
Although Osaka trailed 0-40 on her serve, she battled back to win the fifth game. Azarenka held her serve in a long sixth game and broke Osaka to close the gap 4-3. However, she lost her serve to concede the eighth game and Osaka yelled “Come on.”
Serving for match, Osaka lost the first point but leveled 15-all. She reached the first match point at 40-15 but clinched victory on the second opportunity. It was the third time she had to play three sets in the tournament.
Osaka has been the armour bearer for Black Lives Matter campaigners and victims of violence and brutality. She went into every game wearing a special facemask, with her seventh and final mask bearing the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by a policeman while playing with a toy gun in 2014.
At the presentation ceremony, Osaka explained that she was out to make people start talking about social injustice and other ills.
“My life was always go, go tennis-wise, especially after the previous U.S. Open that I won. It definitely accelerated things, and I’ve never had a chance to slow down.
“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by. I came into this tournament with that mindset. I think it definitely helped me out.”