USTA Pauses All W&S Open Matches Thursday

WASHINGTON, August 27, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Naomi Osaka has spent the past five months finding her voice and stepping out of her protective shell and taking a stand in the Black Lives Matter movement. She came to New York City, the site of the relocated Western & Southern Open, and this week she’s strung together three impressive wins – two of them in the come-from-behind fashion.

On Wednesday afternoon, the fourth seed Osaka came from a set down to beat 12th seed and 20th-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, to advance into Thursday’s semifinal against 14th seed and 22nd-ranked Elise Mertens of Belgium, who earlier had defeated 83rd-ranked American qualifier Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-3 in 64 minutes. After a series upsets earlier in the tournament, the No. 4 Osaka was the highest seed remaining in the women’s singles draw.

During Osaka’s virtual press conference following her win against Kontaveit, the soft-spoken World No. 10 said that for the entire week “I have just been speaking about trying to be more positive.”

Wednesday night, the 22-year-old Osaka did just that. She’s taken a positive stand in protest of racial injustice and police brutality that is occurring throughout the United States – most recently in Kenosha, Wis., earlier this week – by pulling out of her Thursday semifinal match against Mertens, effectively giving the Belgian a walk-over win into the final. Yet, by Thursday morning, Osaka was still listed in the draw and no walkover had been officially announced by the tournament.

Osaka’s decision to not play her 11 a.m. semifinal against Mertens was the latest in a slew of Wednesday cancellations throughout the sports world – especially in the United States – which included cancellation of NBA basketball playoff games, WNBA basketball regular season games and several Major League Baseball games, all in response to the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha.

A two-time Grand Slam champion born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father – and who happens to be the world’s highest-paid female athlete – Osaka wrote on her social media platforms at 8:46 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday evening:

“Hello, as many of you are aware, I was scheduled to play my semifinals match tomorrow. However, 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. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation stated in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?”

#JacobBlake, #BronnaTaylor, #ElijahMcclain, #GeorgeFloyd

About two-and-one-half hours after Osaka’s announcement, the U.S. Tennis Association, which oversees the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, issued a joint statement with the ATP and WTA in which it said that there would be no matches at all on Thursday and play would resume on Friday, Aug. 28.

During the five-month shutdown of the WTA Tour, Osaka attended Black Lives Matter protests and she’s been vocal about those who criticize athletes and suggest they should only focus on sports.

“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain,” she said in a recent WSJ Magazine story. “Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about [furniture]?”

Earlier Wednesday, the men’s and women’s singles quarterfinals and men’s and women’s doubles quarterfinals were held on a much cooler day at the NTC, where the temperature stayed around 80º, about 10 degrees cooler than Tuesday.

On the men’s side, World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic advanced 6-3, 6-1 over Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany in just 62 minutes. The Serbian, who won the 2018 title, has reached his eighth Western & Southern Open semifinal, which ties him with Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer and Bill Tolbert. Djokovic converted five of nine break points.

In one semifinal, Djokovic will face eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain. The Spaniard rallied to beat third seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, in the day’s first quarterfinal.

“We always expect Roberto to play on a certain level. He doesn’t drop much. He doesn’t give it away,” said Djokovic during his virtual press conference. “You have to earn your points. He is so solid from the back of the court. … Roberto found a way [against Medvedev] and that is obviously a virtue of champions.”

Against Medvedev, Bautista Agut saved 15 of 20 break points he faced and won 71 percent of his second serve return points to advance after two hours and 13 minutes.

“After the first set, I was thinking a lot of bad things,” Bautista Agut said. “It was a very good comeback.”

In the other half of the draw, fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece advanced when 39th-ranked American Reilly Opelka, ahead 6-5 in the first set, retired just 37 minutes into the match due to a right knee injury. Opelka took a medical timeout during the seventh-game changeover and had his right knee taped. Then, while Tsitsipas was seated at his bench during the 11th game changeover, Opelka approached him and the two tapped racquets.

The rising Greek star has reached his fifth ATP Masters 1000 semifinal, all since the 2018 Rogers Cup in Toronto. In tall order, Tsitsipas has conquered three of the tallest players on tour in six-foot-eight Kevin Anderson, 6-foot-10 John Isner and 6-foot-11 Opelka.

During a virtual press conference, Tsitsipas asked with a hint of laughter: “Am I going to make it to the record books for playing the tallest players on the ATP consecutively, one after the other? I have to check it out. I don’t think it has ever happened before.”

As it happened, Tsitsipas will meet 6-foot-5 Milos Raonic in his semifinal match. The 30th-ranked Canadian needed two hours and 42 minutes to defeat 32nd-ranked Filip Krajinovic of Serbia, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5.

Krajinovic had a match point at 5-4 in the final set on Raonic’s serve. However, the former World No. 3 recovered and pulled out the victory. Raonic finished with 24 aces and won 80 percent of his first serves.

“I was creating opportunities in the early going but wasn’t making the most of it, and he would step up,” Raonic told Tennis TourTalk. “I just kept plugging away … I wanted to do my things well. I got fortunate things turned around for me. 

“I haven’t turned matches around that many times. I thought we were both playing well. There’s a lot to be proud of.”

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, with the Osaka-Mertens semifinal wiped out, focus will be on the other semifinal between eighth seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain and 59th-ranked Victoria Azarenka from Belarus.

Both Konta and Azarenka scored impressive victories on Wednesday afternoon. On the Grandstand, Konta defeated 13th seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-4, 6-3, in one hour and 32 minutes. Sakkari, who was fresh off of her thrilling three-set Tuesday night victory over 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, was unable to get on track against the British No. 1.

“Obviously, I’m really pleased to have won today,” said Konta during her virtual press conference. “I knew it was going to be a tough match. We have played a lot of great matches in the past, and none of them have been easy and they will never be easy either way.”

Konta has yet to drop a set en route to reaching her second WTA Premier 5 semifinal. She served four aces against zero double faults and won 82 percent of her first serves and wasn’t broken. Her mental fitness is coming together for her at the right time.

“I think I was able to stay tough at certain bits in the match, which I think helped me edge forward in trying to get a foothold in the match. It was really blustery out there again today. It wasn’t easy with the wind and her type of ball, as well,” she said.

“Overall, just pleased the way I competed. I thought I served again better and better as the match went on, I thought, and just overall I thought it was actually some good tennis out there.”

The 2013 Western & Southern Open champion Azarenka was also pleased with her effort in beating 39th-ranked Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 7-6 (9), 6-2 in one hour and 44 minutes on Court 17. The Belarusian has strung together four consecutive wins to reach the semifinals. Like Konta, Azarenka has not dropped a set this week.

“I think what was challenging today was that I was playing against her for the first time,” Azarenka said of Jabeur during her virtual press conference. “Other opponents I have played before, so it was a little bit more familiar.

“The beginning was a little bit tough for me. I felt like I was getting bullets out of my behind for a few times, and then I kind of got into the ball. I was surprised but in a good way by her pace. She’s very, very talented. I have obviously seen her play, but, you know, standing on the other side was different.

“So, I definitely admire her talent, and it was surprising in a good way. I mean, in a bad way for me, but I’m saying it with a compliment.”

Highlighting the men’s doubles draw, Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, both of Great Britain reached the semifinals for the second straight year by taking out fourth seeds and reigning French Open champions Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both from Germany, 4-6, 6-1, 10-8. The British duo will face third seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, who took out fifth seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos from Argentina, 7-5, 7-6 (8).

“Another good win for us today. Weather conditions totally different to what we played in so far this week,” Skupski said, quoted by the ATP Tour website, in commenting about the wind. “We adapted well. We got off to an early lead in the second and took confidence from that. The tennis wasn’t great today because of the conditions, but we managed to come through and we’re both excited to be in the semifinals.”

In the women’s doubles draw, Czech-Dutch duo Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs, the third seeds advanced to the semifinals with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Australians Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders. Other seeds still alive include No. 2 Nicole Melichar of the United States and Xu Yifan of China as well No. 8 Lucie Hradecka of Czech Republic and Andreja Klepac of Slovenia.

Around the Western & Southern Open

Wednesday evening at 11:22 p.m., the U.S. Tennis Association, which oversees both the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, issued a statement:

“As a sport, tennis is collectively taking a stance against racial inequality and social injustice that once again has been thrust to the forefront in the United States. The USTA, ATP Tour, and WTA have decided to recognize this moment in time by pausing tournament play at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday, August 27.  Play will resume on Friday, August 28.”

Among those reacting to the USTA’s decision, New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey wrote on Twitter Wednesday night:

Also, ESPN presenter Chris McKendry wrote on Twitter Wednesday night: