Naomi Osaka lay flat on the hardcourt of Arthur Ashe Stadium, looking to the sky with the flicker of a smile.
She had just done something no woman had done in the U.S. Open since the 1994 final — dropping the first set, then winning the title. She lost the first set decisively to Victoria Azarenka, then finally got her game in gear, rallying for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory and her second U.S. Open crown.
"You sort of see everyone collapse after match point and maybe injure themselves," Osaka said. "I wanted to do it safely."
There couldn’t have been a greater difference in her two Open championships.
In 2018, Serena Williams’ second-set meltdown essentially handed her the title. Williams got a coaching violation, a racket abuse penalty and another violation for abuse of the chair umpire that led to a game penalty. The Ashe Stadium crowd was in an uproar, but the violations pushed the title onto Osaka’s racket and she held her nerve.
At this U.S. Open, and the Western & Southern Open at the tennis center that preceded it, there were no crowds and no roars of any kind.
But Osaka’s public embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement came to the fore. At the Western & Southern, she declined to play her semifinal match in a protest over the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The USTA, owner of the tournament, paused it for a day in sympathy. Osaka played and won the semifinal but had to pull out of the final with a hamstring injury that handed the title to Azarenka, who was a surprising finalist.
Osaka had seven medical masks made for the U.S. Open with the names of Black people who had been killed or injured in unjust situations. It was both a sign of her social concern and an indication that she could also focus on her tennis inside the lines and was planning on making the final, the seventh match.
For Saturday’s match, her mask bore the name of Tamir Rice. a 12-year-old Black youngster killed by a policeman in Cleveland in 2014.
"Everything I was doing off the court was on the court, too," Osaka said. "I felt it made me stronger. I wanted to show people the names and make them aware. I wanted to be keeping the same positive attitude."
Not only was the context of her victory so markedly different, but so were the first two sets of the match. Azarenka started off playing flawlessly and Osaka was out of sorts. Her normally dependable first serve was misfiring, her ground strokes were mistimed and her feet weren’t moving. It was similar to Azarenka’s semifinal with Williams, when she got steamrolled in the first set, then rallied.
It didn’t look all that great for Osaka in the second set when she was broken the second game and trailed 0-2. But Osaka gained her first break point of the match in the third game and converted it. Finally, the game was on.
Osaka served harder, whacked her ground strokes deeper, and suddenly it was Azarenka on a string. Two more breaks of serve and Osaka had leveled the match.
There was no quit in Azarenka. Never has been. She has come through a very difficult three years of personal strife in a contentious custody battle over her son Leo, who was born in late 2016. She has fought a number of injuries and bouts of uncertainty. The 31-year-old considered retiring before this season. When she arrived for the Western & Southern, she had not won a match in a year. Then she got on a roll that carried her to her first title since she won three times in early 2016.
Osaka broke her in the fourth game of the third set and Azarenka fought mightily to hold serve in the sixth. Then Azarenka broke in the seventh and Osaka came back for another break in the eighth before holding in the ninth for the championship.
For the 31-year-old Azarenka, there are reasons for hope.
"I gave everything that I could today on the court. It didn't come my way," she said. "But I'm very proud of the last three weeks that I've been here. 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."
Dominic Thiem vs. Alexander Zverev
TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.