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Naomi Osaka powers way into U.S. Open final

Naomi Osaka returns a shot to Jennifer Brady

Naomi Osaka returns a shot to Jennifer Brady during a semifinal match of the U.S. Open on Sept. 10, 2020. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

    Naomi Osaka is back in the final of the U.S. Open. The 2018 champion prevailed over American Jennifer Brady in an extremely well-played match at Arthur Ashe Stadium Thursday night.    It was oh so close the whole way, with Osaka winning 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3.

Osaka will play the winner of the late match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka for the title on Saturday.

   “I consider New York my second home and I love the atmosphere here even though there are no fans,” Osaka said. “I love playing on this court.” 

       Brady had not lost a set in the previous five matches, including taking out  2016 Open champion Angelique Kerber in a drubbing. But she had also not come up against the power of Osaka, especially her serve, which was hitting 118 miles an hour with some frequency.

The first set established the match as a slugfest, big serves, big forehands, the crack of the ball reverberating around the empty stadium.    Osaka fended off break point in the seventh game of the first and Brady never faced one in a match of championship quality. But in the tiebreak Osaka ran away with it when Brady’s unforced errors essentially handed her the set.

    Brady didn’t show a trace of nerves after losing the set and Osaka showed no signs of wearing down. The quality of play remained at championship level, the forehand to forehand exchanges exhilarating, the backhands down the line incisive. Both players were wearing big wraps around their left quads and hamstrings, but neither seemed impeded.

    In the eighth game of the second set, Brady finally broke though. A deep backhand jammed Osaka into a error for 30-40 and Osaka hit a crosscourt backhand wide to end the best rally of the match. Brady, who had faced only one deuce point on her serve, blasted her way in the ninth game for the set win.  In the third set, it was mostly Osaka.

Osaka has shown that her passionate embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement has not impacted her passion for winning. She has been wearing the names of Black people who have died or been injured during police actions on the medical masks she wears when walking on court. Thursday night it was Philander Castile who was shot dead by a police officer in Minnesota in 2016.

     “It's definitely helping her and giving her even more energy,” said her coach Wim Fissette. “I mean, she always has the motivation. Of course she wants to go really far in this Grand Slam.”

    During the Western & Southern Open, the Cincinnati tournament moved to the National Tennis Center to precede the Open,  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.

    “She did unbelievable big thing during the Cincinnati tournament, as you know,” Fissette said. “I think it's a great thing that she does for sure with wearing the masks, she wants to be role model, but also she knows that it has to go together with the role model on court. So it's a good combination. Role model off court; also great attitude on court. That goes together.” 

  Men’s semis on tap: Daniil Medvedev faces Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev takes on Pablo Carreno Busta in the men’s semifinals on Friday on Ashe Stadium. It’s guaranteed that one of them will become a first-time Grand Slam winner. Medvedev, who has shown the strongest form during the tournament, lost in the final last year to Rafael Nadal. Medvedev had won 65 of his 68 services games and hasn’t lost a set through his first five matches. Thiem lost to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final in January. Zverev and Carreno Busta are trying for their first Grand Slam final.

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