Osaka digs deep to set up final with Azarenka at Western and Southern Open

Naomi Osaka sealed a 6-2, 7-6(5) win over Elise Mertens to reach the Western and Southern Open final.

Naomi Osaka beat Belgian Elise Mertens to reach the Western and Southern Open final on Friday after playing in a semifinal she had originally withdrawn from in a call for racial justice.

Japan's Osaka, who walked onto the Grandstand court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, sealed a 6-2, 7-6(5) win on her second match point when Mertens put a backhand return wide.

The world number 10 said on court after the two-hour match that it had been a stressful 48 hours and she was not able to sleep much last night.

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“I'm really glad I was able to play at a pretty good level,” said fourth seed Osaka. “I'm really glad I didn't mentally collapse. I was down a break in the second and I was really tight in the tiebreak too.”

Osaka broke Mertens three times to race through the opening set but was forced to dig deep after the 14th-seeded Belgian won four straight games to go 4-2 up in the second set.

But Osaka, 22, settled down and broke to level at 4-4 and then brilliantly saved eight break points to pull ahead 5-4 before displaying exceptional power in the tiebreak.

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka walked onto the Grandstand court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.   -  Getty Images

 

On Wednesday, hours after booking her place in the last four at the US Open tune-up event, the Japanese joined the athlete-led protest over the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin last week and said she wold not play her Thursday semi-final.

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But Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father and has been a vocal supporter of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, changed her mind after organisers subsequently announced a pause in play and postponed all semifinal action by a day.

In the final Osaka will face Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who beat British eighth seed Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

- Osaka surprised by impact of her call for racial justice -

Osaka said she never thought her call for racial justice would garner the attention it did and she does not want to be called brave for taking a stand that led to a one-day stoppage at the ongoing Western and Southern Open.

Osaka said she thought the reaction to her stance was something more reserved for some of the game's bigger names like Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.

“It's definitely a bit eye-opening but in an odd way, because I only previously thought, like, the Big Three and Serena would have that type of power,” she said.

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“But also, at the same time, I recognise the fact that maybe the WTA and ATP wanted to do something like this but they needed a push from a player to do something like this? So maybe I was sort of their, you know, that one player,” she added.

Osaka said she made a promise to herself during the sport's nearly five-month COVID-19 hiatus to not be shy in the future when it came to speaking her mind.

“During quarantine, the biggest thing I thought was, like, when I get out of this, I want to grow as a person and I don't want to have that many regrets going forward.

“I'm not sure if it's a light bulb or if there was any particular moment that sparked me to speak up, but I do feel like it's been building for a while,” she said.

After posting her announcement on Wednesday, Osaka said it was a bit frightening and that she had to turn off her phone because she gets anxious whenever people talk about her.

“I don't feel like I'm being brave. I just feel like I'm doing what I should be doing,” she said.

“Honestly, when people say courageous or anything, I don't really resonate that well with it. I just feel like -- not common sense, but this is what I am supposed to be doing in this moment,” she added.