Photo: Naomi Osaka
Can you still call it a comeback if the person you came back against was yourself?
That seemed to be the case as Naomi Osaka seemingly woke up from a deep tennis slumber after being routed by Victoria Azarenka 6-1 in the first set, gaining her strength (and her blistering forehand) just in time for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory to become the newest U.S. Open women’s champion—the second Open title for Osaka after her legendary (memorable, controversial, etc.) win over Serena Williams two years ago.
Osaka celebrated her win—after racquet bumps with Azarenka, who played lights-out throughout the tourney but couldn’t find that extra gear today—by returning to mid-court, laying on her back, and focusing a meditative gaze skyward. “I always see everyone sort of collapse after match point,” Osaka said later by way of explanation, “but I always think that you may injure yourself, so I wanted to do it safely.” (Her boyfriend, rapper Cordae, wasn’t quite so zen—he leapt from his seat at the stadium, pumping his fist in the air so hard that his mask almost came loose.)
She now joins Angelique Kerber, Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams as the only players with three Grand Slam titles—but it’s worth noting that Osaka is almost a decade younger than any of them.
It all seemed a faraway dream early in the second set, when Osaka had lost seven of the nine previous games before winning seven of the next eight. Seemingly out of nowhere, Osaka was back in the match, seemingly re-energized and refocused. From that point on, the outcome was rarely—which is not to say never—in question. It was simply a different Osaka we were seeing.
What turned it around for her? To hear her tell it, it was quite simple. “I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour,” she said.
Osaka was then asked, just before accepting the trophy, what message she was trying to send by wearing seven different masks, one for each of her seven matches at the Open, displaying the name of a Black American unjustly killed. Her answer was as brief as it was pointed.
“What was the message that you got?” Osaka answered back. “The point is to make people start talking.”