Naomi Osaka finds calm with second US Open title

Naomi Osaka tapped racquets with Victoria Azarenka, nodded to the chair umpire, took out her mask, had a word with an official, put the mask back on her seat and walked back on to the court. She lay down and spent several seconds gazing at the New York sky before getting up.

This time, the Arthur Ashe Stadium was virtually empty. Osaka didn’t have 20,000-odd spectators booing, as they did, ignoring a 20-year-old’s achievement of winning a maiden Major. There was also no need to cover her face in tears and embarrassment amid moments of joy. Osaka didn’t have to be “sorry” for winning a Grand Slam, as she was in 2018 after beating Serena Williams in a highly emotional final following the American’s outburst against the chair umpire.

This time, she could savour those moments lying on the ground with no distractions that marred her previous triumph at Flushing Meadows.

“I mean, this one feels different overall because of the circumstances I’m under. I wasn’t in a bubble last time. There were a lot of fans last time,” Osaka said.

Booing fans, mind you!

“Yeah, I feel like in the end all I focus on is 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.”

The Japanese wasn’t quite in control throughout in the women’s singles final on Saturday, but the fourth seed managed to regain it in time for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over 31-year-old Azarenka, who was chasing her first Grand Slam in seven years. The sparkling comeback earned Osaka her second US Open title, and a third Major.

Mixing on-court power and athleticism with her off-court voice and activism – she wore different masks for her seven games to honour victims of racial abuse – Osaka, 22, made this US Open her own. It symbolised her growth as an individual and player.

That the daughter of Japanese-Haitian parentage – she grew up in New York – was champion material was evident quite early on the tour due to her exceptional all-round game, complemented by a solid serve. That she can emerge champion even when pushed against a wall started to show over the last couple of years. It was reiterated on Saturday.

Since the start of last season, Osaka has won 26 three-setters, losing only thrice when matches have gone the distance. Twelve of those wins have come after surrendering the first set, twice in her 2019 Australian Open win as well as this campaign. She is 12-0 in Grand Slam three-setters since the 2018 US Open.

Down a set and 15-40 in the second game of the second set, Osaka paused for a few seconds to gather her thoughts before getting into service position. Until then she seemed to be going through the motions. In fact, Azarenka had to ask her to slow down a couple of times between points in the first set that ended in just 26 minutes. Osaka was broken in that game to go 2-0 down, but her body language revealed the will to fight. It’s something she has improved on after winning her first Slam.

“I feel like two years ago I maybe would have folded being down a set and a break,” Osaka said after the match. “But I think all the matches that I played in between that time shaped me and made me or forced me to mature more. So yeah, definitely I’m more of a complete player now. I feel like I’m more aware of what I’m doing.”

The tightness in Osaka’s game went too after the first set as she packed more bite and menace into her shots to counter Azarenka’s clever angular hits from the baseline. It began to tell on the Belarusian, whose double fault and three unforced errors gave Osaka a double break that put her in front for the first time in the final at 4-3. This after Azarenka had 94 percent first serve and just three unforced errors in the first set.

It was time for Osaka to flaunt her power game, be it a precise backhand winner down on one knee from centre of the court to hold at 5-3 or switching from defence to offence with a ferocious passing forehand winner to deny Azarenka a break before converting a second set point to draw level.

“I just thought to myself to be positive, ‘don’t lose 6-1, 6-0’; hopefully give her a slight run for her money. Yeah, I just sort of ran with that line of thinking,” Osaka said.

Run she did with the deciding set, capitalising on Azarenka’s increasingly faltering first serves and errors to go 3-1 up. The decisive moment came in the next game where Osaka saved three break points from 0-40 to hold serve and crush the grit of the two-time Australian Open winner. Despite Azarenka breaking serve, Osaka kept her composure to quell a late fight back.

“I guess I’ll celebrate this win just by processing it more. The last two times I wasn’t able to process it,” she said.

Perhaps that’s what those 18 seconds on the ground was all about.

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