US Open: Osaka the champion on and off the court 

The Japanese star reclaimed the US Open with a thrilling triumph over the rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka Osaka US OPen 2020 final©Simon Bruty / USTA
 - Alex Sharp

Naomi Osaka brought seven face masks to the US Open and due to her mesmerising on-court fortnight, managed to raise awareness for fighting racial equality whilst winning another Grand Slam.

The names on the masks Osaka wants you to know, to read about, to learn and her activism has been praised across the globe.

Some said it would be a distraction, but as the 22-year-old battled through the draw at Flushing Meadows, it became incrementally apparent Osaka was on a mission to use her platform to spread awareness. 

"Well, what was the message you got? The point is to make people start talking,” said the Japanese star, using her trophy presentation interview to keep the conversation going.

Outspoken off the court as well as ‘loud’ on the court crescendoed into a compelling 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 final against the rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka.

Osaka, who will rise back to world No.3, thrives on the big stage, despite nerves, the intense spotlight and expectations. 

For all the stats bouncing around social media on Saturday, the one that resonates is Osaka remains undefeated (9-0) once she reaches the quarter-finals of a major.

This run includes the 2018 US Open, the 2019 Australian Open and the second Grand Slam title in New York.

Producing the highlight reel shots, the enormous comeback, the weight of her activism, you might have expected a release of emotion.

However, in a very Osaka-like manner, the three-time Grand Slam champion took a moment to simply lie on the court and gaze up to the sky. 

“I always see everyone collapse after match point, but always think you may injure yourself. So, I wanted to do it safely,” said Osaka with a smirk. 

“I've always wanted to see what they saw. For me, it was really an incredible moment. I'm really glad I did it.”

The champion used her usual dry wit to pay tribute to Azarenka’s part in a thrilling silverware showdown. 

"Firstly, I wanna congratulate Vika. I actually don't want to play you in more finals,” joked the 22-year-old. “I didn't really enjoy that - it was a really tough match for me."

Azarenka, back on centre stage courtesy of winning the Cincinnati Premier 5 lead up event, followed by an enchanting two weeks at Flushing Meadows.

The two-time Australian Open champion, with her renewed perspective and all-court artillery, leapt upon Osaka’s early nerves to launch into a staggering 6-1, 2-0 advantage.

It was simply perfection, with Osaka constantly on the run.

“Not that I expect myself to play 100%, but it would be nice if I could even play, like, 70%,” reflected the Japanese star. “I just felt like I was too much in my own head.

“Then in the second set, of course I was down early, which really didn't help me out. I just thought to myself to be positive, don't lose 6-1, 6-0, hopefully give her a slight run for her money. I just sort of ran with that line of thinking.”

It worked. Osaka began to pack a punch with her strokes and was punishing any short shot from the Belarusian’s racket. Osaka went full-throttle, excelling as the front runner, with Azarenka still utilising all her grit to remain in contention.

It wasn’t quite enough, Osaka harnessed her main goal – to remain in a “positive mindset”. Her purposeful point construction eventually ground down the defiance of Azarenka.

“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by. I came here with that mindset,” continued Osaka. “I think it definitely helped me out”

For Azarenka the past three weeks have catapulted the 31-year-old back into the limelight and only a match away from the ‘bubble double’.

Lifting the Western & Southern Open, victories over two top-five seeds at the US Open, all culminated in a third final at Flushing Meadows

“It's definitely been a great three weeks of tennis. I haven't had such results in quite a long time,” said the 2012 and 2013 finalist.

“I gave everything that I could today on the court. It didn't come my way. I felt that I progressed a lot. I've played a lot of great matches. I felt that I've tested myself physically, mentally on very difficult stages. I'm very proud of myself. I want to continue to keep going the same way, enjoy myself.”

Azarenka has been extremely philosophical in press in New York, expressing herself with a very uplifting demeanour alongside the fierce competitor on the court.

“I don't feel the same way, for sure not,” summarised the former world No.1, looking back on her previous finals at the US Open. “That's not even comparable. 2012, 2013... I'm very happy I've used my seven years or eight years wisely to mature and have a different reaction than before.”

The incentive is clearly to keep going, to keep building on this momentum.

 “It's painful to lose. Am I going to think about it too long? Not at all,” mused Azarenka.

“Could I have played better? I think I could. But I left everything I could on the court today. She won the match. All the credit to Naomi. She's a champion.

“I thought third time is a charm, but I got to try again. That's what I'm going to do.”