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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Asian Reporter web extra, September 13, 2020

Naomi Osaka of Japan returns a shot to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus during the womenís singles final of the US Open tennis championships on Saturday, September 12, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Naomi Osaka of Japan holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the womenís singles final of the US Open tennis championships on Saturday, September 12, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Naomi Osaka of Japan hits balls into the stands after defeating Anett Kontaveit of Estonia during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championships on Monday, September 7, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Analysis: Naomi Osaka is poised to lead tennis on, off court

By Howard Fendrich

The Associated Press

September 13, 2020

NEW YORK (AP) ó Naomi Osaka is at the top of tennis right now, poised to lead the way on the court ó and off it ó for years to come.

Still just 22, she already owns three Grand Slam titles after winning the U.S. Open. All were claimed in a span of the past seven major tournaments, thanks primarily to her big serve and forehand and an ability to think her way out of trouble.

Then thereís this: Osaka is demonstrating a willingness to speak out about racial injustice, becoming her sportís leading voice.

Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, put a spotlight on the issue by declaring she would walk out of a tune-up tournament last month, then by wearing masks with names of Black victims of violence to her U.S. Open matches.

After coming back to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final at Flushing Meadows on Saturday, Osaka drew a direct line between who she is as a player and who she is as a person ó and how success in one realm can affect the other.

"For me, I felt like it made me stronger, because I felt like I have more desire to win," Osaka said on ESPN, "because I want to show more names and I want people to talk about it more."

In a way, Osakaís emergence can be viewed as a fitting tribute to Billie Jean King and the rest of the Original 9, 1Ĺ weeks before the 50th anniversary of their signing $1 contracts for a women-only tournament, paving the way for todayís Womenís Tennis Association (WTA) tour and equal prize money at Grand Slam events.

Itís also a reminder of Kingís philosophy, expressed this way in an interview with The Associated Press this year: "I knew if I wasnít No. 1 that nobody would listen."

Osaka showed up for her first-round match at the U.S. Open wearing a black mask with white lettering spelling out the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot in her apartment by police in Kentucky. Osaka explained she brought seven face coverings ó one for each match if she reached the final.

"Iím aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesnít know Breonna Taylorís story. Maybe theyíll, like, Google it or something," she said. "For me, (itís about) just spreading awareness."

She added the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by police in Ohio in 2014, on Saturday to the list of victims she honored: Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Philando Castile.

Asked what her message was, Osaka turned the query around.

"ĎWhat was the message that you got?í is more the question," she replied. "I feel like the point is to make people start talking."

Osaka got the conversation going in tennis when she said she would withdraw from her semifinal at the Western & Southern Open ó a tournament moved from Ohio to New York ahead of the U.S. Open to form a two-event "controlled environment" to limit travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tournament officials followed her lead and called off a dayís play entirely.

"This is like an extra motivation, as you know. Itís a very important topic for her," said Osakaís coach, Wim Fissette.

"Itís very important to have big personalities like Naomi to make a change, hopefully, one day. I think itís a great thing that she does. For sure with wearing the masks, she wants to be role model," Fissette said. "But also, she knows that it has to go together with (being a) role model on court. So itís a good combination. Role model off court; also great attitude on court. That goes together."

Against Azarenka, Osaka hit six aces and 17 forehand winners. She won 15 of the 23 points that lasted at least nine strokes.

Most impressive, though, Osaka cast aside a terrible initial half-hour, realized she needed to be more aggressive ó crowding the baseline to redirect shots more quickly, taking time away from Azarenka ó and became the first woman in 26 years to win a U.S. Open final after dropping the first set.

After it ended, the last shot struck and the championship hers, Osaka calmly set down her racket on the sideline with a smile, walked back onto the court and eased herself down, laying on her back and glancing overhead.

"I was thinking about all the times Iíve watched the great players sort of collapse onto the ground and look up into the sky. Iíve always wanted to see what they saw," Osaka said. "For me, it was really an incredible moment. Iím really glad I did it."

She was thrilled she had earned the trophy. Tennis should be thrilled it has Osaka.

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press.

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