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Naomi Osaka Adjusts, and Wins One of the Best U.S. Open Finals in Years


Among the many rewards of watching tennis closely is the chance to sense a player adjusting, and to then see if that adjustment works. It worked for Naomi Osaka, who won the U.S. Open late Saturday afternoon, though not easily: 1–6, 6–3, 6–3, over a wondrously resurgent Victoria Azarenka. No woman had won the U.S. Open final after dropping the first set since 1994, when Arantxa S√°nchez Vicario defeated the reigning champion, Steffi Graf. And, to this fan, no U.S. Open women’s final had been as compelling purely for its tennis since Azarenka battled Serena Williams for three sets eight years ago, losing after leading 5–3 in the third set and serving for the match. The near-absence of spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium, on account of the coronavirus, allowed for the positioning of cameras courtside, and the resulting low camera angles conveyed, intermittently, as TV normally does not, the speed of the ball and the footwork required to reach shots and return them effectively. Close viewing this year was close. None of us could be there, and yet, more than usual, it felt as though we were.

A half hour into the match late Saturday afternoon, Osaka did not seem to be there. She was getting thumped. She had lost the first set in an eyeblink, and was quickly down 2–0 in the second, tossing her racquet in bewilderment and disgust. Azarenka was serving crazily well, getting nine out of ten of her first serves in, and hitting her spots with them, deep into the corners of the service box. But Azarenka is not and never has been a player who dominates with her serve, and Osaka had to know that Azarenka’s serving success would eventually revert to the mean, as the data heads of our “Moneyball” era like to coldly foretell—and it did. Osaka, who does depend on winning points with her big first serve, was not landing hers, but that would right itself, too, soon enough. The real problem for Osaka was her ground-stroke pattern, and Azarenka’s being onto it from the minute the two of them took the court.

Osaka tends to hit her forehands and backhands crosscourt—tends to and tends to and tends to. She hits them so powerfully and with such depth that, against most of the players she faces, it doesn’t matter that they know what’s coming: she hits through them anyway, as the coaches say. But hitting through Azarenka? Azarenka established herself at the top of the women’s game ten years ago as a near peerless defender, crowding the baseline, preternaturally anticipating where an incoming ball was headed, taking that ball early, on the short-hop rise, forehand or backhand, and then, uncannily, redirecting it with pace down the line off a crosscourt shot, beautifully disguised, and, often enough, past a befuddled opponent struggling to get within two or three feet of it. She won the Australian Open twice and reached No. 1 in the world. And then, in December, 2016, she gave birth to her son, Leo, and spent most of the following three years both caring for him and battling in court for custody of him, playing only now and then, and seldom effectively. Only in the past few weeks, really, at age thirty-one, has Azarenka re√ęstablished her game and her confidence in it. She played the Western & Southern Open—which organizers moved from a Cincinnati suburb to New York, this summer, and held the week before the U.S. Open, in the hopes of creating a COVID-19-free bubble—and she won it. In that event, though, she didn’t have to beat Osaka, who pulled out of the final with a hamstring injury. Then Azarenka kept winning, as the U.S. Open began and unfolded. On Thursday night, she beat Serena Williams in three sets in a semifinal match. Osaka’s game, as Osaka has not been shy about acknowledging, is based on Serena’s: serve big, work to set up short balls for forehands, then pound them thunderously crosscourt.

In the first games of the match against Osaka, Azarenka regularly redirected these shots down the line into the open court for clean winners, or, at the least, to get back short replies from Osaka that she could then put away. But, with Azarenka up a break and serving in the second set, Osaka broke her back by hitting a winner—not crosscourt but down the line. It turned the match. Osaka saw what could work. And Azarenka suddenly sensed that she could no longer confidently expect crosscourt shots, could no longer lean or cheat a step or two in the anticipated direction of a crosscourt ball, and thus establish her footing just a little earlier, taking the racquet back farther and striking the ball a little harder. That was the adjustment. And that, in the end, decided the match.

In the seventh game of the second set, with the score tied at 3–all, and Azarenka struggling to hold her serve at 30–40, Osaka went down the line with a forehand, and Azarenka’s backhand drifted wide. Broken. In the next game, with Osaka serving to consolidate her break, she went inside out—not crosscourt—with her backhand to win the game and go up 5–3. In the game after that, Osaka broke Azarenka one more time, with an inside-out-forehand winner, to take the set. And so it would go. Osaka had a new pattern, redirecting the ball the way that Azarenka likes to do. She carried it into and through the third set, which featured stretches of terrific hard-court baseline tennis. But the outcome was never much in doubt after Osaka earned a break in the fourth game with a blistering forehand—once more not crosscourt but down the line.

Osaka’s boyfriend, the rapper Cordae, was among the several hundred people inside Ashe to watch the match, and when Azarenka drove a backhand into the net on a championship point, he leaped from his chair and raised his arms—and the vest he had on parted to reveal a T-shirt calling for the defunding of the police. It was a reminder of American life outside the tennis bubble, and of Osaka’s role in bringing it inside. She’d gone to Minneapolis with Cordae after the killing, in late May, of George Floyd by a police officer. During the Western & Southern Open, she’d decided to boycott her semifinal match to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which led tournament officials to suspend all play for a day. And she had arrived on court for each of her matches at the U.S. Open with a mask bearing the name of a Black man, woman, or child who was killed by a police officer (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by a member of a neighborhood-watch program). Osaka is a twenty-two-year-old athlete and three-time Grand Slam champion, bashful at times but also assertive, cultivating an outsider distinctiveness while becoming the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Her mother is Japanese, and her father is Haitian; she was born in Japan and grew up mostly on Long Island and in Florida. She now lives in Los Angeles, and has spent much of this year reflecting on racism and urging others to understand what life is like for Black Americans.

Naomi Osaka is on a number of journeys. Her willingness to grapple with complexity, along with her championship-calibre game, is a gift to tennis in a fraught time. She is reminding us that sports cannot and should not be simply an escape, that struggle is everywhere and ongoing—even as she reminds us, struggling early as she did on court in the women’s final, that excellence in sports is rare, and can be noble. When a smile broadened across her face as she realized that she’d won the U.S. Open for a second time, we smiled, too.

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