Naomi Osaka recovered from an agonisingly slow start on Saturday, storming back to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 to win her second US Open in three years.
The Japanese player took just under two hours to win a battle of former No. 1 players who each came to the court with two Grand Slam titles.
Osaka said she took little joy from victory: “I don’t want to play Vika in any more finals. I didn’t enjoy this so much – it was a really tough match for me.”
Azarenka saved a match point in the final game but hit the net on a second as Osaka triumphed here for the first time since beating Serena Williams in the infamous 2018 final.
Osaka stood atop another podium four months later as she claimed 2019 Australian Open honours.
“Thanks to my team for sticking with me,” the shy winner of USD 3 million said. “The start of this year was not that great.
“I had to try as hard as I could (after trailing against Azarenka) and stop having a bad attitude.”
Seconds after winning, Osaka carefully lay down on the court of the almost empty Ashe stadium, quarantined due to the COVID-19 situation.
Her explanation: “People usually collapse after match point, but you may injure yourself… I wanted to do it carefully.”
Osaka is the first woman since 1994 here to win the final after losing the opening set.
Azarenka stormed through the opening set in 26 minutes and stood 2-0 in the second before Osaka started her recovery with a break-back in the third game of the set.
The 31-year-old Azarenka from Belarus returned to the big stage more than half a decade after winning her last major at the Australian Open, 2013.
The LA-based mother of one, who also lifted the title in Melbourne in 2012.
“I thought the third time was the charm, but I’ll have to try again,” Azarenka said. “It’s really a blessing to be here in this tough time.
“This was fun, it’s been a long road getting here. I hope to play Naomi in another final.”.
Osaka came to the court with mixed results, much of her energy during the quarantined fortnight in New York occupied by concerns over the Black Lives Matter movement in the US which is protesting police killings of suspects in custody.
The Japanese 22-year-old admitted that she had been sleeping little during the event as she balanced personal concerns with her tennis.
Over the course of the tournament she wore a black face mask prior to her matches, each emblazoned with the name of a different victim of fatal police violence in the US.”
“The point is to make people start talking,” she said. “I’ve been inside the bubble here and don’t know what’s happening in the real world
“But it’s good if more people talk about it.”
Osaka stands a perfect 3-0 record in Grand Slam finals; she won her 11th straight match since tennis returned in August after the COVID-19 tennis lockdown which lasted for five months.
The pair had been due to face off two weeks ago in the finals of “Cincinnati” played here under quarantine conditions. But Osaka withdrew with an injured left hamstring.
Azarenka showed her determination with a break of Osaka in the first game for the early lead, with the US-based Belarus player consolidating with a hold for 2-0.
After losing eight of the first 10 points Osaka managed to get into rhythm with a hold before Azarenka continued to stay in control, 3-1.
A rattled Osaka threw in her second double-fault as she lost serve for a second time to trail 1-4.
Two games later, Azarenka collected the first set after less than half an hour.
Azarenka kept up her relentless pace, breaking to set up a 2-0 lead -with a point for 3-0 – in the second set as Osaka struggled to find her missing game.
The former No. 1 made some progress, breaking Azeranka to stay alive in the set, 1-2 and laid down a third ace to make it 2-all.
Osaka delivered her first break of serve against her fellow former top-ranked opponent for 3-2 and ran her margin to 5-3 after an hour on court.
The ninth seed squared the match after a game comprising five deuces, with Azarenka saving a set point before losing on Osaka’s second winning chance.
Oaska held with a sixth ace to take a 2-1 lead in the third set and broke to make it 3-1; she then had to save three break points a game later to consolidate, 4-1.
Azarenka saved four break points a game later and produced only her third ace of the evening to stay in tough 2-4.
The Belarussian whose fitness had been looking suspect, suddenly opened up the set with a break of Osaka to close to 3-4; but the joy was temporary as Osaka broke back a game later.