NEW YORK — After one errant forehand in the first set of the US Open final, Naomi Osaka looked at her coach in the mostly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium stands with palms up, as if to say, “What the heck is happening?”
In response to another wayward forehand against Victoria Azarenka seconds later, Osaka chucked her racket. It spun a bit and rattled against the court.
Surprisingly off-kilter in the early going Saturday, Osaka kept missing shots and digging herself a deficit. Until, suddenly, she lifted her game, and Azarenka couldn’t sustain her start. By the end, Osaka pulled away to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 comeback victory for her second US Open championship and third Grand Slam title overall.
“I just thought this would be very embarrassing, to lose this in less than an hour,” said Osaka, who dropped down to lay on the court after winning.
A quarter-century had passed since the last time the woman who lost the first set of a US Open final wound up winning: In 1994, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario did it against Steffi Graf.
This one was a back-and-forth affair. Even after Osaka surged ahead 4-1 in the third set, the outcome was unclear. She held four break points in the next game — convert any of those, and she would have served for the win at 5-1 — but Azarenka didn’t flinch.
Azarenka held there, somehow, and broke to get to 4-3, then stood and stretched during the ensuing changeover.
But Osaka regained control, then covered her face when the final was over.
“I actually don’t want to play you in more finals,” a smiling Osaka told Azarenka afterward. “I didn’t enjoy that.”
Osaka, a 22-year-old born in Japan and now based in the United States, added to her trophies from the 2018 US Open — earned with a brilliant performance in a memorably chaotic final against Serena Williams — and 2019 Australian Open.
The 23,000-plus seats in the main arena at Flushing Meadows were not entirely unclaimed, just mostly so — while fans were not allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of people who worked at the tournament attended — and the cavernous place was not entirely silent, just mostly so.
Certainly no thunderous applause or cacophony of yells that normally would reverberate over and over and over again through the course of a Grand Slam final, accompanying the players’ introductions or preceding the first point or after the greatest of shots.
Instead, a polite smattering of claps from several hands marked such moments.
Osaka stepped onto the court wearing a black mask with the name of Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old boy killed by police in Ohio in 2014. Osaka arrived in New York with seven masks bearing the names of Black victims of violence and wore a different one for each match, honoring Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Philando Castile.
“The point is to make people start talking about it,” Osaka said during Saturday’s trophy ceremony.
She has been at the forefront of efforts in tennis to bring awareness to racial injustice in the United States. She joined athletes in various sports by refusing to compete last month after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin — she said she wouldn’t participate in her semifinal at the Western & Southern Open, then decided to play after the tournament took a full day off in solidarity.
Osaka and her coach have said they think the off-court activism has helped her energy and mindset in matches.
The win over Azarenka, a 31-year-old from Belarus also seeking a third Grand Slam title but first in 7½ years, made Osaka 11-0 since tennis resumed after its hiatus because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Azarenka won the 2012 and 2013 Australian Opens and lost in the finals of the US Open each of those years.
“I thought the third time was the charm,” Azarenka said, “but I guess I’ll have to try again.”
She carried an 11-match winning streak of her own into Saturday, including a stirring three-set victory over Williams in the semifinals.
And all of three minutes into the final, Azarenka had a break.
She did it with terrific returning, including a sturdy reply to a 119 mph serve to draw a netted forehand; that might have been in Osaka’s head when she double-faulted on the following point. And Azarenka did it with let-no-ball-by defense, stretch points until Osaka missed, which she did by slapping a forehand into the net to make it 1-0.
A love hold for Azarenka made it 2-0.
Osaka was making the sort of mistakes she avoided almost entirely in recent matches.
It seemed, in contrast, as if Azarenka couldn’t miss, racing into position, always arriving on time, and striking deep groundstrokes to the corners. More often than not, points would end with a flub from Osaka.
Azarenka broke early in the second set, too, and was up 2-0. The question shifted from “Who will win?” to “Might this be the most lopsided women’s final at the US Open since the professional era began in 1968?”
No, Osaka quickly determined.
She broke back to get on even terms, then again to go ahead 4-3 in the second set when Azarenka’s increasing miscues led to a wide backhand.
Here’s how Osaka transformed the match: She stepped closer to the baseline, redirecting shots more quickly and forcefully. It didn’t help Azarenka that she didn’t maintain her form from the first set and began hitting the ball less stridently.
So much of this was about Osaka’s transformation from shaky to sure-footed. She had just five winners in the first set, 16 in the second. And talk about cleaning up her act: She went from 13 unforced errors to merely five.
In the third, Azarenka was the unsure one, double-faulting to set up break points, then netting a forehand to close a 17-stroke exchange to fall behind 3-1. She would not go quietly, but it was Osaka who would take the title.
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