Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 13, 2020

Still Waiting For The Cheers

Someday perhaps, Naomi Osaka will win the U.S. Open and get the reception she so richly deserves. A packed house at Arthur Ashe Stadium, raucous and rowdy as the throngs that make their way out to the far end of Gotham’s #7 subway line can be, on their feet and cheering her name. Fans saluting Osaka as she again lifts the Open trophy, her shy smile slowly growing into a wide grin. Osaka has earned nothing less, not just by winning the Open twice, but also by prevailing in both 2018 and Saturday evening in unimaginably bizarre environments.

Two Septembers ago, playing in her first Grand Slam final, Osaka was reduced to the role of innocent bystander as Serena Williams brought chaos to the U.S. Tennis Association’s showpiece. After Osaka raced out to the lead by winning the first set 6-2, Williams turned her wrath on chair umpire Carlos Ramos early in the second set when he announced a code violation against Williams for receiving hand signals from her coach in the stands. Shortly thereafter the official assessed a mandatory violation against Williams when she slammed her racket onto the court after an especially poor service game. As a second violation that penalty gave a point to Osaka. At the next changeover, a seething Williams proceeded to berate Ramos. Upset by the coaching violation’s implication that she was cheating, she demanded that the umpire apologize. When he demurred, Williams screamed that Ramos had stolen a point from her, calling him a thief. As she began to walk back to the baseline Ramos announced a third violation for abuse of an official, which gave Osaka a game and made the second set score 5-3 in her favor.

Williams pleaded her case to the tournament referee and the Grand Slam supervisor to no avail, but the already boisterous crowd got into the act by loudly supporting the dominant women’s player of the past twenty years, who was then just working her way back into form following near-fatal complications of childbirth. Boos rained down on the chair umpire from every section of the largest tennis-specific stadium in the world, and they didn’t let up after Osaka closed out her straight set victory. The result was an ugly scene during the awards ceremony, as tears ran down the sad face of the tournament champion.

As strange as that final’s night was, the 2018 environment was outdone by the echoing sounds of silence on the Ashe court this year. With the gates of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center closed to fans because of the pandemic, even the premier matches at this year’s U.S. Open were played in front of crowds of no more than a couple hundred spectators – tournament officials, other players, and the small group of support personnel each contestant was allowed to bring into the tournament bubble. That produced an eerie scene utterly foreign to Flushing Meadows, where more so than at any other tennis major the admonition of “quiet please” before the start of a point sometimes does no more than lower the decibel level to a constant background hum. That was missing this year, much less the roars of approval for well-played winners, and the collective groans at the appearance of misfortune.

Just like every other sport, the crowd can also impact the flow of a match, giving strength to an underdog or helping a veteran to dig deep one more time. But at this year’s Open the clapping of any one spectator could be clearly distinguished, leaving the players to look within themselves for motivation and momentum.

For thirty-five minutes Saturday, all the evidence pointed to Victoria Azarenka as the finalist who was best able to do that. Even without the familiar shouts of “Vika!” echoing around Ashe, the two-time Grand Slam winner and former world number one was dominant in the first set and at the start of the second. It took Azarenka just 26 minutes to go up a set, 6-1. She served flawlessly, missing just a single first serve during the opening set. On defense she controlled the baseline, effectively negating Osaka’s superior power with a mix of razor-sharp returns. On the opposite side of the net Osaka came out tentative, perhaps surprised by the high level of Azarenka’s play.

After all, prior to the back-to-back tournaments at Flushing Meadows, she had only played sporadically since the 2017 birth of her son, forced instead to remain in California for long periods of time while enmeshed in an ugly custody fight with the baby’s father. But Vika had given a hint that she was back by winning the Western & Southern Open, the tournament usually played in Ohio but moved to Queens just before the Open, as both a dry run for the closed environment and to give the pros another playing opportunity as months without tennis.

Azarenka surely new that she couldn’t let up, and for the first two games of the second set she did not. But with a 2-0 lead and already up a break, she wavered for the first time in that set’s third game. Osaka had already been broken four times when she finally got her first break point against Azarenka’s serve. Vika chose that moment to hit a poor shot, conceding the break with a badly hit unforced error. It was the first sign of weakness by Azarenka, the first indication that perhaps the match wasn’t going to be over in less than an hour. It was by any measure the tiniest of openings, but it was all Osaka needed.

Her already powerful serves and groundstrokes ticked up even faster, and Osaka began to move Azarenka around on the baseline as she had been forced to up until that point.  The turn in momentum was stunning, but it was only possible because Osaka had never shown any indication that she doubted herself.  Just as she was able to shut the crowd out in 2018, on Saturday she needed only her own resources to find the will to rally.  She wore a different face mask with the name of a Black victim of state-sanctioned violence before each of her matches.  Osaka brought seven such masks to the Open, clearly expecting to wear them all. 

She held to level the score at 2-2, and then three games later broke Azarenka again to seize the advantage.  On Vika’s next serve, at the end of a compelling sixteen-point game, Osaka fired a forehand winner to take the second set. 

In hindsight one can say the die was cast.  History would be made, as it had been a quarter-century since a woman had won the Open after losing the first set in the title match.  But both players are fierce fighters, and Azarenka never quit while Osaka never wavered.  Up 3-1 in the third, Osaka went down triple break point on her serve before rallying to hold.  In the next game Azarenka fought off four break points to hold on her end.  Finally, almost two hours after it started, a backhand return into the net ended Azarenka’s night and gave Osaka her second Open and third Grand Slam title, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.  Maybe next time she’ll get to hear the cheers. 


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