Naomi Osaka rallies to beat Victoria Azarenka for US Open title and third major

Naomi Osaka came to the US Open looking for a third Grand Slam title.

She got it by beating a rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka 1-6 6-3 6-3 — after trailing by a set and nearly 3-0 — but leaves New York as much more than just a fabulous tennis player.

Indeed, Osaka has combined her prowess on court with raising awareness for racial injustice.

As in her six previous matches at this US Open, Osaka wore a mask Saturday that displayed the name of a different Black victim of alleged police or racist violence in the US.

“I feel like the point is to make people start talking,” Osaka said.

This time she honored Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014.

And all this at the tender age of 22. Some might have been overwhelmed by taking so much on their young shoulders, but judging by what happened on the court in New York, not Osaka.

After Azarenka’s backhand found the net on a second match point, Osaka let out a deep breath and looked skywards.

Her second US Open crown was a moment that deserved to be celebrated with fans in the largest regularly used tennis stadium in the world but none were around on Arthur Ashe Stadium, understandably, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Moments later, Osaka lay down on the court and once again looked up above.

“I always see everyone collapse after match point,” she said during the trophy presentation, where the few claps came from tennis officials and entourages. “I always think you might injure yourself so I wanted to do it safely.

When she downed Serena Williams in the controversial 2018 final, it was hardly a normal atmosphere.

Already the highest-paid female athlete in the world according to Forbes with annual earnings of $37 million, one could understand if even more sponsors line up for the Japanese’s signature.

She is the first women’s player to tally three majors under the age of 23 since Maria Sharapova — who was the highest paid female athlete for a decade — did it in 2008. She is also the first woman since 1994 to overturn a first-set deficit en route to winning a US Open final.

On the way to more?

Sharapova ended her career with five Grand Slam titles. Osaka could be on the way to even more.

The defeat is sure to sting Azarenka, especially with the lead she held, but the last month has marked her renaissance.

The 31-year-old former No. 1 has said that she thought about leaving tennis after enduring a custody battle and dealing with injuries.

But after not winning a match for a year, she triumphed at the warmup Western & Southern Open at the same site as the US Open — Osaka withdrew from the final with a hamstring injury — and then made her first Grand Slam final in seven years.

There was also Azarenka’s first win over Williams at a major in Thursday’s dramatic semifinals.

“I’m not necessarily disappointed,” she told reporters. “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 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. I had a great two weeks. I enjoyed myself.”

The straight-talking Belarusian had spoken during the tournament about how lessening her ego has helped her grow as a player and person.

“I could continue to stay on my high horse or I could just change it and learn from that,” said Azarenka on Thursday. She was bidding to become the first mom to claim a major since Kim Clijsters in 2011.

She sped through the first set like a thoroughbred in 26 minutes, the most lopsided opening set in a women’s US Open final in games in 13 years.

What was Osaka thinking?

“For me I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour and I just have to try as hard as I can and stop having a really bad attitude,” she said.

“I feel like two years ago I maybe would have folded being down a set and a break. But I think all the matches that I played in between that time shaped me and made me or forced me to mature more. Especially all the matches that I’ve played here were very tough.

“So, yeah, I think definitely I’m more of a complete player now.”

All going Azarenka’s way early

That first set saw Osaka make 13 unforced errors combined with just five winners. Azarenka meanwhile only hit three unforced errors and served at 94%.

Azarenka couldn’t match Osaka for power. Instead she stayed aggressive from the baseline by redirecting pace and creating angles.

Everything was going her way, including a double net cord winner in the first game of the second set.

Osaka, who earlier tossed her racket to the court gently, was bound to be rattled. But with Azarenka leading 2-0 and 40-30, Osaka went up a gear. It’s a gear few have.

Azarenka buckled in her next service game, double faulting for the first time and missing a backhand wide with the court open to get broken.

Suddenly Osaka had all the luck, striking an ace at 30-all in the next game down the middle that caught the line by a millimeter. She led 5-3. A laser forehand return brought her a set point in a marathon game and she broke for 6-3.

The statistics confirmed her stunning turnaround: 16 winners and five unforced errors in the second.

The odds were now against Azarenka, since Osaka had won 11 straight third sets in Grand Slams. The trend continued but not without an unexpected twist.

Osaka grabbed a 3-1 advantage and seemingly ended any hopes of an Azarenka comeback by saving three straight break points in the next game.

She was now cruising to the title but Azarenka saved four break points to avoid going down 5-1. Osaka was now the one jolted and she immediately dropped her serve to get Azarenka back on serve at 3-4.

The last word, though, would go to Osaka, who broke for 5-3 when Azarenka’s forehand went just wide.

But her words in the last month haven’t only focused on tennis.