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 saved 18 of 21 break points in her 6-2, 7-6 (7/5) victory, advancing to 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 begins on Monday.
“My service game was tougher than normal. I’m glad I was able to save 18 of them,” Osaka said. “Preparing for this match was a bit stressful but I’m glad I was able to close it out.”
Two-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, of Haitian and Japanese heritage, said Wednesday she wouldn’t play in the semi-finals to protest the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Osaka said she was “sick to her stomach” and “exhausted” by repeated violence against blacks by US police, echoing a move by the NBA Milwaukee Bucks in boycotting a playoff game for the same reason.
“I honestly didn’t even think it would be that big of a deal,” Osaka said Friday.
“I always thought it would be nice if someone started in tennis. I’m more of a follower. I was waiting and waiting and then I realized I was the one who was going to have to take the first step.
“I just wanted to create awareness in the tennis bubble. I think I did my job, I guess.”
Osaka’s decision prompted the WTA and ATP to postpone all semi-final matches to Friday, which inspired Osaka to change her mind and play, although she was worried other delayed players would be upset.
“I don’t want them to blame me for the one-day break because their schedule got messed up,” she said.
“I was scared but they were really nice.”
Osaka said her big personal gains from the move were “confidence and really becoming more aware of the impact my voice could have.”
Azarenka, from Belarus, defeated British eighth seed Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the other 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.
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.
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 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, after battling into the tie-breaker, won when Mertens hit a backhand wide.
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.”
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