Naomi Osaka: A Champion and Crusader in equal measure
Naomi Osaka won her 2nd US Open championship, defeating Belarusian Victoria Azarenka 1-6 6-3 6-3.
Naomi Osaka lay on court and stared into the skies after winning the US Open in 3 sets. It’s not such an unusual celebration in the times of Covid-19, where human contact is best minimized. At the end of it all, it was the relief of overcoming adversity.
The match seemed buried after the first set. 1-6 down in the opening set, not many would have given her a chance to stage a comeback at the US Open singles final.
Azarenka had the momentum. Hot on a 11 match unbeaten run, she grunted her way to a 2-0 lead in the second set. The 31 year old Belarusian was edging closer to break her US Open duck. Twice before, the former World Number 1 had lost the US Open final to Serena Williams. But she was about to lose another to a girl playing at ‘home.’
Japanese by heart
Osaka, born to a Haitian father and Japanese mother left Japan when she was 3 years old, shifting base to Long Island, USA. Aligning with Japanese customs, she adopted her mother’s maiden name.
Despite growing up in the United States, she decided to pledge her allegiance to the country of her birth. Under Japan’s Nationality Law, a person with dual citizenship has to choose one or the other by the age of 22. The 23 year old will be representing Japan at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
“For me, I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour,” Osaka told the Associated Press.
Osaka struggled with her serve in the first set but held her nerve. She sent down 6 aces in total but was richly rewarded for her returns to Azarenka’s serves.
No Sascha Bajin, no problem
Sascha Bajin, a German tennis coach is famous for training top female players like Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka.
As someone who scouts opponents, passes on the tactics and practises with these players, Bajin helped Serena Williams win multiple singles and doubles titles.
He trained with Osaka, helping her win her first two Grand Slams – the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open. They parted ways soon after and sceptics doubted whether she could ever reclaim her status as an elite player.
Coming from behind to win a final is the first real hint of evidence that Naomi Osaka is a fighter. If defeating Shelby Rogers in the quarter-finals was simple, getting past Jennifer Brady in the semi-finals was far from it.
Playing out 3 sets against Brady prepared her for a difficult match against a determined Azarenka. As a girl of few words or ‘shy’ as some would call them, she played down her achievement. “I wasn’t really thinking about winning. I was just thinking about competing. Somehow, I ended up with the trophy,” she said.
Osaka wore seven different masks with names of black people written on it at this tournament. As someone who is multi-ethnic herself, she wanted to call attention to the victims of racial injustice.
In the final, she wore a mask with the name of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black boy who was killed by the police in 2014. Before that, she displayed the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery.
After her quarter-final victory, she was shown a video of Trayvon Martin’s mother and Ahmaud Arbery’s father thanking her for the support.
She became teary eyed and said that she felt like she was a “vessel who needed to spread awareness.”
Osaka is among a number of athletes who have spoken out against racial inequality. Growing up as a Haitian-Japanese in the US, she opened up on her experience with social injustice.
“The biggest thing is I don’t want people younger than me to suffer through the things I have to suffer through,’’ Osaka said.
“If any younger player reaches out to me and has questions, for sure I’ll answer them. I’ll try to help them out because I know how tough it is to be in that position.”
Moms of the US Open
The 2020 edition was the first time that three mothers had reached the Grand Slam quarter-finals. Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are just three examples of the high levels women can reach post their maternity break.
Vera Zvonareva, a 5-time Grand Slam winner won the 2020 US Open Champion after experiencing motherhood.
Victoria Azarenka hopes that her unbeaten run until the finals is an inspiration to other women and mothers.
“Hopefully it inspires women to go after their dreams. I feel like you can’t always identify yourself as just one thing.”
Zvonareva – Siegemund win Women’s Doubles
Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund took home the Women’s Doubles title. The Russian-German pair defeated American Nicole Melichar and her Chinese partner Xu Yifan 6-4 6-4. This was Zvonareva’s 2nd US Open Women’s Doubles title, having last won it all the way back in 2006.
Speaking about how her career has changed after becoming a mother, she said, “I think women are thinking about their careers a little bit more than before.”
“Earlier you felt like you had to start a family at 25, but now you’re feeling okay to start your family at 35, or start a family but then still continue with your career.”
“I think it’s a tough challenge, but maybe we can be a good example for the next generation of moms.”