Japanese fourth seed Naomi Osaka won the semi-final match she once vowed not to play, defeating Belgium’s Elise Mertens on Friday to reach the ATP and WTA Western & Southern Open final.
Osaka’s 6-2, 7-6 (7/5) victory advanced her into Saturday’s championship match against two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka in the same New York Covid-19 quarantine bubble where the US Open will begin on Monday.
Azarenka, from Belarus, defeated British eighth seed Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the other women’s semi-final at the US Open tuneup, which is typically played in Cincinnati but was moved in the wake of the deadly virus outbreak.
On the men’s side, Canada’s Milos Raonic eliminated Greek fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 to reach an ATP final against the later winner between top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Spanish eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Osaka said Wednesday she wouldn’t play in the semi-finals to protest the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis,” Osaka said Wednesday.
“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Osaka said she was “sick to her stomach” and “exhausted” by repeated violence against blacks by US police.
Her move, coming in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks boycotting their NBA playoff game for the same reason, prompted the WTA and ATP to postpone all semi-final matches to Friday, which inspired Osaka to change her mind and play.
“For me, this is very different from any semis I’ve ever played,” Osaka said just before walking on the court Friday. “Definitely, the emotions are very different. All I want to focus on is the tennis ball.”
Mertens was supportive of Osaka and unfazed by the off-again, on-again status of the match.
“I totally get her reason 100% so I’m totally supporting her too,” Mertens said before the match. “Let’s go to the semi-final and see who wins.”
Osaka, the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open champion, broke for a 2-0 lead and again in the eighth game to take the first set in 38 minutes.
The 22-year-old Japanese star, who saved 18 of the 21 break points she faced, broke for a 2-0 lead in set two before Mertens rolled through the next four games. Osaka broke back in the seventh game and they battled into the tie-breaker, winning when Mertens hit a backhand wide.
– Raonic backs Osaka move –
Raonic commended Osaka’s move, saying, “It’s a human right not to have that fear. I hope there is a change in the future and that we as athletes can be a small part of that.”
Raonic saved a break point in the tie-breaker on the way to taking the first set in 55 minutes, then hit a backhand winner off the net cord to break for a 3-1 lead on the way to reaching the final.
“It was tough,” Raonic said. “I stuck with my game and it paid off. I’m happy with my tennis. I took my time to get healthy and put in the work and it has paid off.”
Raonic, the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up in his lone Grand Slam final, has never gone past the fourth round at Flushing Meadows but hopes a title could signal a breakthrough.
“It would be incredible,” he said. “I want to go to heights I haven’t achieved yet and this is part of it. I hope to get that next step tomorrow.”