Saturday, September 12, 2020

Osaka overcomes poor start, vanquishes Vika for title

Naomi Osaka, shown at 16 in 2014, became the first
woman to win the U.S. Open after dropping the open-
ing set since 1994. Photo by Paul Bauman
   This time, there was no controversy, crying or crowd.
   There was, however, a comeback.
   In a matchup of former world No. 1s and two-time Grand Slam singles champions, Naomi Osaka overcame a terrible start to defeat resurgent Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in today's U.S. Open final in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
   Osaka, 22, became the first woman to win the tournament after dropping the opening set since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario beat Steffi Graf 1-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in 1994. It was Osaka's second U.S. Open title in three years and third major crown overall.
   Two years ago, Osaka defeated heavily favored Serena Williams in a tumultuous final at Flushing Meadows for her first Grand Slam title. Williams was assessed a game penalty late in the match for her third code violation. During the awards ceremony, tears rolled down Osaka's cheeks as the pro-Williams crowd booed. 
   With no fans allowed at 23,770-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fourth-seeded Osaka trailed the unseeded Azarenka 0-2 in the second set before finding the range on her powerful serve and groundstrokes. After hitting only five winners and committing 13 unforced errors in the opening set, Osaka had 29 and 13, respectively, the rest of the way. 
   "I thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour, so I just (told myself I) have to try as hard as I can and stop having a really bad attitude," Osaka, who made her WTA main-draw debut at 16 in the 2014 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, said during the awards ceremony.
   Osaka led 4-1 in the third set, but Azarenka won the next two games to get back on serve. Osaka broke right back and held serve for the match, converting her second championship point when Azarenka netted a backhand after another in a long line of furious rallies.
   Osaka improved to 3-0 in Grand Slam finals after failing to reach the quarterfinals in four consecutive majors. She also ended Azarenka's winning streak at 12 matches, including a walkover against Osaka in the final of the Western & Southern Open two weeks ago in Flushing Meadows.
Victoria Azarenka played in her first major singles
final in seven years. 2014 photo by Paul Bauman
   Azarenka, 31, played in her first major singles final since losing to Williams in three sets in the U.S. Open title match for the second consecutive time in 2013.
   "I thought third time was the charm, but I guess I'll have to try again," the two-time Australian Open champion, who ousted six-time U.S. Open winner Williams in the semifinals (by the same score as in the final), said during the awards ceremony.
   After 2013, Azarenka struggled with injuries and depression. She played only two tournaments between May 2016 and March 2018 because of pregnancy and a subsequent child custody dispute that ultimately was ruled in her favor, plummeting to No. 978 in May 2017. Azarenka then went 0-3 from August 2019 until last month's Western & Southern Open.
   Osaka, who will vault six places in the world rankings to No. 3 on Monday, collected $3 million for winning the title. Forbes magazine reported in May that the Japanese icon is the highest-paid female athlete ever with $37.4 million in endorsements and prize money in the preceding 12 months.
   Azarenka, who will jump 13 spots to No. 14, pocketed $1.5 million as the runner-up.  
   Both finalists played with social or political issues in the back of their minds. 
   Osaka — who has a Haitian father, was born in her mother's native Japan and grew up in Florida — has been a prominent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wore a mask showing the name of a different victim of racial violence for each of her post-match interviews during the U.S. Open. Osaka also sparked a one-day postponement of the Western & Southern Open to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. 
   "I just want people to have more knowledge," Osaka said on "I feel like the platform that I have right now is something that I used to take for granted, and I just feel like I should be using it for something."
   Azarenka's native Belarus, meanwhile, has been rocked by mass protests against autocratic President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994. He has brutally suppressed demonstrations since claiming a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election, The New York Times reported.
   "That's breaking my heart to see what's happening, because not being able to be there and understand the whole situation, it's really sad," Azarenka, who lives in Manhattan Beach in the Los Angeles area, reportedly said last month. "I can't even speak without tears in my eyes when I think about it."
   Serena out of Italian Open — Williams withdrew from next week's Italian Open in Rome, citing a strained Achilles tendon. She suffered the injury early in the third set of her loss to Azarenka on Thursday.
   The French Open is scheduled for Sept. 27 to Oct. 11 in Paris. Williams — the Roland Garros champion in 2002, 2013 and 2015 — remains one Grand Slam singles title short of Margaret Court's record of 24.

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