…Unsure about playing in France
Naomi Osaka captured the third grand slam title of her career with a battling 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Belarusian Victoria Azarenka to lift her second US Open trophy in three years.
However, her next chance at a title may not come straight away, as she sounded uncertain about whether she will be attending the French Open, which starts in Paris in two weeks.
“French Open? I was planning to play when I came here, but I guess I’ll see what happens,” she said.
Clay is not her favourite surface, and she has also been carrying a hamstring injury since the Western & Southern Open.
In Saturday’s final thriller, the Japanese fourth seed rallied back from a set and a break down to snap Azarenka’s 11-match winning streak and maintain her perfect record in major finals.
Exactly two weeks after forfeiting from her Western & Southern Open final against Azarenka due to the hamstring injury, Osaka proved her mettle with a gutsy 112-minute win at an empty Arthur Ashe stadium.
This was Osaka’s third win from four meetings with Azarenka, who has now lost all three of her US Open finals. She was pushed to the brink by the two-time Australian Open champion and was quick to give her credit during her victory speech.
“Firstly, I want to congratulate Vika. I actually don’t want to play you in more finals, I didn’t really enjoy that. It was a really tough match for me,” joked Osaka.
“It’s really inspiring for me because I used to watch you play here when I was younger, so just to have the opportunity to play you is really great.”
Azarenka, one of the best returners in the game, handled the Osaka serve brilliantly from the start, and extended the rallies with great variety to break twice for an early 4-1 lead.
The former number one, now 27 in the world, closed out the set in 27 minutes, dropping just four points on serve.
At the start of the second set, Azarenka picked up right where she left off and leapt to a 2-0 advantage.
Down 1-6, 0-2, 22-year-old Osaka raced to take seven of the next eight games. She broke Azarenka for 3-1 in the decider but squandered four break points for a shot at going up 5-1.
Azarenka swung the momentum back her way after surviving the sixth game and broke to get back on serve at 3-4. But her comeback was short-lived as Osaka marched towards victory to deny her 31-year-old opponent a third grand slam.
Osaka has been wearing a different mask emblazoned with a different name of a police shooting victim for each of her seven US Open matches this fortnight.
For the final, she had the name Tamir Rice on her mask, in honour of the 12-year-old African American boy that was shot by the police in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014.
During the trophy ceremony, Osaka was asked by ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi what message she wanted to send out to the world via her masks.
“What was the message that you got? Isn’t that more the question?” she eloquently asked back. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
Osaka admits it hasn’t been easy handling both her activism and her tennis over the past three weeks.
“I feel like definitely there were a lot of hard times, especially being in the bubble. You sort of over-think a lot of things,” confessed the 22-year-old.
“I think I just got through it because during quarantine I wanted to set myself up to possibly win this tournament. I just worked so hard, I wanted to give myself an opportunity. I wanted more people to say more names [of victims], so…”
Osaka, who has now won her last 11 consecutive matches, will rise from nine to three in the world rankings when the new list is released on Monday.
Azarenka will move up to No.14 in the world and can take many positives from her three weeks in the New York bubble, during which she picked up the Cincinnati title and managed to post her first-ever grand slam victory over Serena Williams from 11 attempts.
“I thought the third time was a charm, but I guess I’ll have to try again,” said Azarenka, who also lost the US Open final in 2012 and 2013.
“It’s been long road of getting here but this was fun,” she said.