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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, September 12, 2020

 
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Naomi Osaka rallied past Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 to capture her second US Open crown—and third Grand Slam title—in a historic fight back.

Photo credit: Pete Staples/USTA

Staging a fierce comeback flight, Naomi Osaka stuck a celebratory landing on the Arthur Ashe Stadium center stripe.

Moments after seizing her third Grand Slam title, Osaka laid flat on her back soaking up the moment while staring up at the sky and leaving a silhouette of sweat marking a masterful comeback.

More: US Open Women's Final Preview

Even when she’s down, Osaka is always looking up.

In a fierce and uneven Flushing Meadows final, Osaka battled by Victoria Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, capturing her second US Open title in the last three years.




It is a historic comeback: Osaka is the first woman since Arantxa SΓ‘nchez Vicario in 1994 to drop the opening set and roar back to win the US Open final.

Once Osaka committed to the cause, she transformed her worst start in a major final into a statement of identity.

"I think I could have easily faded away, but I really wanted to fight, just compete," Osaka said. "I don't know. Honestly, there wasn't really another thought in my mind.

"I wasn't really thinking about winning, I was just thinking about competing. Somehow I ended up with the trophy."

The fourth-seeded Osaka has used her voice to support racial and social justice.

Blown out in the opening set today, Osaka gave herself tough talk to turn this final around. Then she began serving with clarity and drilling aggressive strikes down the line and relying on her superior power to take charge earning her 11th straight win and snapping Azarenka's 11-match winning streak.

“For me I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour,” Osaka said after accepting her US Open trophy and the $3 million champion’s check. “So I just have to try as hard as I can and stop having a really bad attitude.”



We know all about Osaka’s power.

Today, she showed staying power solidifying her status as a supreme closer raising her three-set record in major matches to 12-0 in becoming the first woman since Jennifer Capriati two decades ago to win her first three Grand Slam finals. Osaka joins Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Virgina Wade as the fifth woman to win her first three major finals.

Two-time US Open finalist Azarenka was in warrior mode from the first ball and poured all her effort and intensity to every point, but could not match Osaka’s explosiveness in the final set. Seven years after her last US Open final, Azarenka was valiant and candid confronting the pain of her third career Flushing Meadows final loss.

“I thought that the third time was a charm—I guess I’ll have to try again,” said Azarenka, who collected a $1.5 million finalist’s check. “Congratulations to Naomi. Contragulations to your team. I’m very happy for you and I hope we can meet in some more finals again.”

Azarenka arrived in this USTA bubble ranked No. 59 coming off a Lexington loss to Venus Williams and seeking her first win of the year. Playing some of the most dynamic tennis of her career, Azarenka won her 21st career title at the Western & Southern Open via walkover from Osaka then delivered a near-perfect win annihilating Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals and showed sheer guts roaring back from a set down to defeat Serena Williams 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in a pulsating semifinal.

Still, the sting of going up a set and a break and coming so close to her first US Open title will linger.

"I'm not disappointed. I'm not necessarily disappointed," Azarenka said afterward. "It's just painful. It's painful to lose. That is what it is.

"It was close. I was close. But it didn't go my way. Am I going to think about it too long? Not at all. I said it. I win or I lose, I'm not going to change. I'm not going to sit here and be miserable. This was an experience that was just an experience that didn't go my way."


It was tale of two very different sets with Azarenka dominating the first, Osaka finding her serve to take charge of the second and playing dynamic first-strike tennis in the final set. Only during patches of the decider did both champions play their best simultaneously.

This was a classic clash of supreme server vs. sniper return on the Grand Slam’s biggest stage—typically a frenzied cauldron of excitement, but this fan-free Coronavirus climate presented a sterile setting for stress to sprout.

A smattering of USTA and stadium staffers scattered among the normally-packed President’s box created both the biggest audience of the tournament yet still the smallest crowd for a Grand Slam final in history.

The fourth-seeded Osaka came out tighter chasing her errant serve. Azarenka, riding a tournament-best 31 service breaks into the final, was moving quickly extending a point to draw an errant forehand and earned the opening break.

Competing with fire and desire, Azarenka flipped the script out-serving Osaka in the opening set. 




The Belarusian backed up the break at love. The fast first step and bold ambition to bang the ball down the line have helped Azarenka take down some of the game’s most aggressive players during this inspired 11-match winning streak. She showed both assets with a jolting forehand strike down the line holding with a hearty fist pump for 3-1.




On the other side of the net, an unsettled Osaka could not dial in her serve or forehand. The fourth seed scattered a double fault and missed a forehand—her 10th unforced error—as Azarenka earned the double break.

Lingering frustration spilled over as Osaka tossed her white Yonex stick to the court after shoveling another forehand into net. Meanwhile Azarenka, who did not miss a first serve until deep into the sixth game, plowed through four straight games jerking a jittery Osaka side-to-side.




The two-time finalist fired a clean two-hander down the line scoring her third break to roll through a 26-minute rout of a set. Azarenka made 16 of 17 first serves in the first set and teed off on Osaka’s second serve making the bigger hitter defend off her back foot at times.

Most importantly, she competed with a relaxed intensity reversing the score of her 1-6 opening-set loss to Serena Williams in the semifinals. Bopping her head to David Bowie's "Let's Dance" playing over the soundsystem, Azarenka high-stepped to a one-set lead. 

The two-time runner-up was one set from wrapping the best run of her career and seizing her first US Open title.

For the first time in her career, Osaka was down a set in a Slam final, could she come back?

Azarenka deconstructed the Osaka serve with a sharp-angled return and a razor sharp backhand down the line leaving Osaka sliding into a split behind the baseline as she broke again for 2-0.

Pounding her palm against her thigh as if trying to shake some life into her legs, Osaka began operating with faster feet and finer footwork. Rather than drifting back on deep balls, she gave herself more space to step into her drives getting her body behind the ball. Osaka scored her first break in the third game then dotted an ace to draw even.




Still, Azarenka was serving as if directing the ball with GPS cracking through a two-ace game for 3-2.

Midway through the second, Osaka finally began to find her range and rhythm, while Azarenka dipped from her lofty level. The world No. 27 played her sloppiest game of the final spraying her signature shot wide to drop serve in the seventh game.

"I think in the first set I was so nervous, I wasn't moving my feet," Osaka said. "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.

"Yeah, I just sort of ran with that line of thinking."

Osaka, who had chased her toss like a runaway balloon at times failing to hit an ace in the opening set, snapped her fifth ace of the second set off the center stripe holding for 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point with a smash and a shout bouncing the ball off the back blue wall right near where Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette, who formerly coached Azarenka, sat.




Clocking her shots with conviction, Osaka was dancing in the doubles alley anticipating the wide serve and whipped a forehand return for a second set point. Azarenka’s loss of depth proved fatal as Osaka moved up quickly and rapped another forehand down the line snatching the second set on a four-game surge to force a final set with the title on the line.

Azarenka couldn’t miss a serve in the first set and couldn’t find a first serve at the start of the decider. A stray 71 mph double fault put her in a double break point bind.

Redirecting a forehand down the line, the Belarusian denied the first but Osaka stepped in and snuffed out a 17-shot exchange slamming a shot down the line that a stretched Azarenka could not handle. That strike gave Osaka the first break of the last set and a 3-1 lead.

Still, the feisty Azarenka came right back applying triple break point pressure. Osaka aggressively saved the first two. On the third, the Japanese placed her most timid second serve of the set—72 mph—near the middle of the box, but in a return she will rue, Azarenka gagged on it. An energized Osaka navigated the turbulence consolidating for 4-1.

Azarenka made another spirited stand. Denying three break points to hold in the sixth game, the Belarusian battled back from 40-15 down slashing successive forehands off the sideline to break back and get back on serve at 3-4.

The 31-year-old mom declined to sit down on the ensuing changeover stretching out her legs for the final sprint.

Would there be another plot twist?

On this day, Osaka separated herself as a champion committed to closure.

All the good work Azarenka did to fight back faded in a barrage of Osaka blasts as she targeted the Belarusian’s forehand banging out a break point chance. Osaka broke back and stepped up to serve for her third Grand Slam championship.




Credit Azarenka for fighting from first to last ball. On her second championship point Osaka beat back everything the Belarusian belted at her drawing the final error.

Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian dad and Japanese mom, grew up on Long Island attending the US Open as a kid where she watched Azarenka, among others, as a US Open fan dreaming of someday climbing down from the cheap seats onto the big stage herself.


Driving through the streets of Queens on route to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Osaka said she broke into tears reflecting on the sacrifice her parents, who were unable to attend the US Open due to the USTA Coronavirus safety bubble, made on her behalf.

She's moved out of the family home in Florida into her own place in L.A. but Osaka remains very tight with her family and said the congratulatory text from her parents moved her most.

"Yeah, it's always my parents," Osaka said. "Every time I win, I hope that I make them happy. My mom, especially here in New York, I have so many memories of her waking up at 4 in the morning, catching the bus, catching the train. I know all the sacrifices she made. Hopefully I can repay her one day."

Walking onto court throughout the Open, Osaka has paid tribute to African American victims of violence—she’s worn the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery—on her mask and spoke about how moved she was seeing a video from the families of Arbery and Martin expressing gratitude for her gesture of support.



The Coronavirus quarantine was a time of vision and revision for Osaka, who has grown from all of it as a champion, activist. A more complete player and an a more assertive champion.

"I would definitely say it's been an important few months," Osaka said. "For me, my life was always go, go tennis-wise, especially after the previous US 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. For me, I came into this tournament, or these two tournaments, with that mindset."

In a stirring comeback, Osaka tuned in to her inner voice completing a statement slam.

 

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