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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Naomi Osaka is now the face, and voice, of women's tennis

Naomi Osaka holds up the championship trophy after

Naomi Osaka holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. women's singles final on Saturday at Flushing Meadows. Credit: AP / Frank Franklin II

This time there were no tears. This time there was no controversy. This time there was just a really good tennis match that was won by a dominant player who is now the face of the women’s game.

Naomi Osaka captured her second U.S. Open championship in three years, coming from behind to beat unseeded Victoria Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Over the past four weeks in New York, Osaka has come of age. No longer is she the soft-spoken newcomer who cried here two years ago after beating Serena Williams in an ugly final that ended Williams’ infamous fight with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.

The 22-year-old Osaka has used the past four weeks in New York to showcase both her voice and her game. The win over Azarenka capped a four-week run of champion-level tennis and political activism in New York.

Osaka’s decision not to play in a Western & Open match in order to protest police violence led to the tournament deciding to postpone play for an entire day. Osaka then continued to hammer home her message at the U.S. Open by wearing seven different masks with seven different names for each of her matches to honor victims of violence. On Saturday, she walked onto the court with a mask honoring Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014.

"The point was to make people start talking," Osaka said when she was interviewed at the awards ceremony.

It seems more and more people want to listen to Osaka. With the win, she is now 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, having followed her win in the 2018 U.S. Open with a win in the 2019 Australian Open.

Osaka, who represents Japan but is based in the United States, was already in high demand by advertisers before last night’s match. Last year, she transplanted Williams as the highest paid women’s athlete in the world, raking in $37.4 million in endorsements.

"She is going to be the new leader for the women’s game," Chris Evert said on the ESPN telecast. "She is really proving that more and more. It’s time to have someone like Naomi who everyone can embrace."

Yes, there seems to be a changing of the guard in the women’s game this year with Williams, the player who has dominated tennis for decades, clearly on the downside of her career.

Osaka, a biracial daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, is indeed a star for our times. During the break from competition because of the pandemic, Osaka said she got more and more involved in social justice. Osaka said she had marched in Minneapolis and attended other Black Lives Matters protests in Los Angeles, where she lives.

"Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman," Osaka tweeted when announcing two weeks ago that she would not play her semifinal game at the Western & Southern Open.

Many had been hoping to see a rematch of the Williams-Osaka final from 2018, but that hope ended when Azarenka outplayed Williams in three sets in the semifinals. Williams had everything to play for in that match as this seemed to be her last best chance to win her 24th Grand Slam title and tie Margaret Court’s record.

This time there was no Williams on the court in the finals. Just a 22-year-old star who looks like she will be there for years to come.

New York Sports