September 12, 2020

A Champion for a New Generation

After two of the strangest weeks we've seen in tennis -- and more than seven months since our last Major winner was crowned -- we finally have a new Grand Slam champion in Naomi Osaka, who came back from a set and a break down against Victoria Azarenka to claim the 2020 U.S. Open title.

Maybe it's unfair to call Naomi a "new" champion -- the 22-year-old stunned the world two years ago when she took out Serena Williams in this final in straight sets. A couple months later she won her second crown in Melbourne, and with her victory today she become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati to go 3-for-3 in her first Major finals.

And what an exciting way in which to do it! Azarenka -- who had ended a year-long losing streak in a big way last month, winning the title in "Cincinatti", ironically when Osaka pulled out of the final with a hamstring injury -- was riding a ten-match winning streak coming into Saturday's championship round, capped by a glorious comeback against Serena in the semis, where she notched her first ever win over her long-time rival at a Major. She came out swinging in the final two, breaking Osaka three times to take the first set in 26 minutes and getting an early break to start the second.

But it was almost all Naomi after that. As she said after the match, it would have been embarassing to lose the match in under an hour so she fought her heart out, forced a decider and took the lead in that early. Serving it out at 5-3, she came out on top in what might have been the best point of the match, when Azarenka swiped a return into the net. And somehow, after nearly two hours, she was the one holding the trophy.

But it feels like the win meant so much more than the glory of the title -- over the last few months, Osaka has grown in to a true activist for causes well outside tennis. In June she quietly traveled to Minneapolis, the site of the murder of George Floyd, to show her support for those protesting police violence. At the Western & Southern Open, she withdrew from her semifinal to make a statement about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin -- an act that caused the entire tournament to pause play in solidarity. And for each of her matches at the U.S. Open, she wore a mask bearing the name of a different Black man or woman killed by law enforcement.

It's a kind of advocacy we don't see from most players much older than Osaka, but she and the likes of Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe have done a lot to take up the cause, helping to bring a new generation of voices to light. What have these actions accomplished? Well, to hear Osaka tell it, at least they've gotten us talking -- and hopefully those conversations can effect real change. And as her platform keeps getting bigger, her impact can only grow.

A couple months ago, when the pandemic was just getting underway and lockdown was really taking hold, Osaka told CNN she was trying to get over her "crippling" shyness. Well, it seems clear over the last few months, that she has really found her voice.

And for the good of the sport -- and the good of the world, here's hoping she keeps using it.

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