To Play Or Not To Play, Osaka Did Both And Won Twice

WASHINGTON, August 29, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Friday was supposed to have been finals day at the Western & Southern Open in its temporary New York home at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. That was before Naomi Osaka’s conscience changed the tennis world when she announced her decision Wednesday night to join other athlete-led protests against racial injustice and social inequality across the United States and sit out her semifinal against Elise Mertens on Thursday.

Subsequently, the USTA, ATP Tour and WTA announced a stop in tournament play on Thursday, with play to resume with the semifinals on Friday. By Thursday afternoon, Osaka, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, confirmed her commitment to play on Friday. It meant pushing the finals back a day to Saturday – just two days before the start of the US Open on Monday.

When she took the court on the Grandstand, Osaka was sporting a Black Lives Matter t-shirt that featured a clinched fist. If anyone was unsure how Osaka would handle the pressure of becoming the focal point of her sport – and in returning to a frame of mind to compete against a very good player in the 14th seed Mertens – the young, 22-year-old World No. 10 quickly answered her critics.

The fourth seed Osaka won her match against the Belgian, 6-2, 7-6 (5), for her ninth win of 2020, and will play for the championship of the Western & Southern Open on Saturday against unseeded Victoria Azarenka. It is her first tournament since losing to Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open last January.

While Osaka said she was prepared to concede the match to Mertens before the tournament paused – and Mertens might have thought she was going to get a walkover into the final – a day off for both might have done each some good. After all, Mertens was already playing in her third WTA tournament since the relaunch of the tour earlier this month after competing in Palermo and Prague, and she came in with 19 tour victories, second most in the WTA.

“I’ve already played a lot of matches. So, I think a day off for me was actually pretty OK,” said Mertens during a pre-match interview with ESPN. “I’m totally supportive [of Naomi].

When it was time to play, Osaka, came out and immediately went to work, taking a quick 3-0 lead en route to capturing the opening set. Then, she rose to the occasion by fighting back from a break down in the second set to save eight break points in a crucial ninth game with the score tied 4-4. Although Mertens went ahead 5-4 in the tie-break, Osaka fought back to win the final three points of the match.

“I’m really glad that I’m playing this tournament right now, because just having these match plays and being able to figure things out on the court is going to be really helpful,” said Osaka during her virtual press conference, which took place about two and one-half hours after the completion of her semifinal and after she completed a sit-down, one-on-one interview with ESPN‘s Chris McKendry.

“This is my first tournament back from quarantine. So, I’m happy that I’m in the finals.”

Osaka reached her first WTA final of the season after beating Karolina Muchova, Dayana Yastremska, Anett Kontaveit and Mertens, all ranked in the Top 30.

“For me, it’s really cool to be able to play Vika now, because I played her in the French [Open] last year, but I know that probably her best surface is hard court and also my best surface is hard court,” said Osaka, who will take a 2-1 career head-to-head against Azarenka into the final. “I think it will definitely be a really fun match.”

During her virtual press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Osaka if she had any idea what kind of an impact her statement would have and that it would be universally praised by her fellow players. She said: “For me, honestly, when I posted it, I just thought it would make the rounds in tennis circles. I wasn’t aware the reach that it would get. So, if I am being completely honest, it was a bit frightening for me and I had to turn off my phone. I get really anxious whenever I see people talking about me, but then I put myself in that situation. So, it was kind of stupid. I would just say I didn’t expect the response that I got.”

Five straight wins this week for Azarenka 

Unseeded Victoria Azarenka‘s outstanding run has earned her a berth in Saturday’s final after the Belarusian came from behind to beat eighth seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, in two hours and 19 minutes on Court 10.

The 59th-ranked Azarenka’s win in her first WTA semifinal since April 2019 improved her win-loss record during this abbreviated season to 5-2 and she’s now 3-1 lifetime against the 15th-ranked Konta. She will attempt to win her 21st career WTA singles title against Naomi Osaka.

Azarenka arrived in New York last week winless in 2020. Since then, she’s strung together five consecutive wins for the first time in four years. It began with a first-round victory over 15th seed Donna Vekic on the opening day of the tournament and was followed by victories over Caroline Garcia, Alizé Cornet, Ons Jabeur, and Konta. She’s dropped only one set this week.

Azarenka, who hit 26 winners against just 12 unforced errors, was asked by Tennis TourTalk why she thought she won. “I think it was a really good, high quality match overall,” she said during her virtual press conference. “I think Johanna played really, really well. Especially in the first set, she was really taking a lot of chances, and some of the opportunities that I had I didn’t maybe go enough for them. But she was really, really strong.

“I felt that in the second set I was able to manage those opportunities better, step up a little bit. And then in the third set, I felt like I was more, you know, in my pace and doing what I wanted to do, so I felt more comfortable.”

Azarenka credits the constant work she’s been putting in on a daily basis “and perspective and your mentality.

“That’s it. There is no magic thing,” she said. “I know sometimes when you have results, people are looking for some magic trick that you’re doing, but there is no magic. There’s just work, consistent work.”

Raonic plays solid in win over Tsitsipas

Canada’s Milos Raonic reached his first ATP Masters 1000 final in four and one-half years after his 7-6 (5), 6-3 triumph over World No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece.

The unseeded, 30th-ranked Canadian was solid on his first serve, winning 90 percent of his first-serve points, during his one hour and 37-minute semifinal that was played on Louis Armstrong Stadium. Raonic hit 28 winners against 16 unforced errors, while Tsitsipas finished with 17 winners and 11 unforced errors.

Raonic, who is 0-3 in ATP Masters 1000 finals, last played in a final at that level at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., losing to Djokovic.

“It would be incredible [to win an ATP Masters 1000 title],” said Raonic during a post-match interview on court with ESPN. “Just generally as part of my career, it’s not just the past six months coming back [and] playing. Just with everything else, I want to go to heights I haven’t achieved yet and this is a part of it. This is what I’ve worked hard for with very clear, specific goals and I hope that I can get that step closer and maybe make a difference tomorrow.”

Raonic, 29, has had to overcome numerous injuries that has sidelined him and dropped him to Canadian men’s No. 3 behind younger countrymen Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime. Last year, alone, he missed 10 tournaments due to injury. Now, thanks to the five-month COVID-19 shutdown of the ATP Tour, he’s healthy and enjoying a great run in New York at the Western & Southern Open in advance of next week’s US Open.

“I’m feeling good about my tennis,” said Raonic. “I took the time to train, to try to do things right, to get myself to a stage I haven’t been before with my tennis, with my health. I hope it can keep paying off for me because I’ve put in the work and let’s see what the future holds.”

Next, Raonic will meet World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He will go into Saturday’s final with an 0-10 lifetime head-to-head record against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.

When Raonic was asked what his key to winning the final, he said, “For me, I’ve got to find a way to first ball. I put a lot of pressure on guys with my serve. I’ve got to make them play, I’ve got to make them think on their serve. If I’m giving too many free things away, it makes my service game harder and also takes a lot of pressure that I build up with my service games off of them.”

Djokovic survives scare, remains unbeaten in 2020

Top seed Novak Djokovic reached his seventh Western & Southern Open final after a grueling three-hour, three-set battle with eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut, in which the Serbian pulled out a miraculous 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory over the 12th-ranked Spaniard. Djokovic gave it all he had during a third-set tie-break and served three aces and won on his first match point.

Djokovic’s 22nd victory of the year snapped a three-match hard-court losing streak against Bautista Agut. He’s now won 19 of his last 20 tie-breaks.

“Very strange match, I must say,” Djokovic said during an on-court interview with after his win. “I don’t know how I won it, to be honest. He was the better player. 

“I just didn’t feel good on the court at all, in any aspect of my game and of the body, but somehow I managed to pull this one through.”

At 1-2 in the second set, Djokovic received a neck adjustment from an ATP physio, which seemed to bring new life to him. He upped the intensity of his game but by the third set, it seemed to take a lot out of him. After Djokovic gained a 5-2 lead, Bautista Agut went to work and won four straight games to surge ahead 6-5. However, Djokovic dug deep and extended the match to a tie-break by holding serve.

By the end, not only was Djokovic’s neck still bothering him, he appeared sick to his stomach, too.

During his on-court interview, Djokovic was asked how he strategized against Bautista Agut, who moved about the court so very well and many times had an answer for everything the World No. 1 tried to counteract with. “It’s a balance between the patience and kind of control the aggressivity, if you want to call it,” he said. “When you have a chance, you have to go through it. 

“You have to not only move him around left and right but forward, backwards, you know, kind of mix up with the pace and spin and depth. You just have to put a lot of variation in the game. He’s a very consistent player.”

Despite a tough defeat, Bautista Agut did not sulk during his virtual press conference. Instead, he looked for positives. He told Tennis Tour Talk, “I was very close to winning. I served for the match and I was two points away for the win,” he said. “I can be disappointed or I take the other way and think that I made a good comeback to the tour-level. I played really good matches this week, and I was serving for the match against the No. 1.”

Before Djokovic left the court, he was asked about Raonic, his next opponent. He said, “He’s playing well. He’s confident. Let’s hope for a good final.”

Doubles finals set 

• Unseeded Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain and Australia’s Alex de Minaur advanced to Saturday’s final with a 7-5, 6-4 win over American wild cards Steve Johnson and Austin Krajicek. They will face unseeded British duo Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, who beat third seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, 7-5, 6-3.

• Third-seeded Czech-Dutch duo Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs defeated eighth seeds Lucie Hradecka of Czech Republic and Andreja Klepac of Slovenia, 6-2, 6-1, to advance against second seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Xu Yifan of China. The American-Chinese pair defeated unseeded Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia and Iga Swiatek of Poland, 6-4, 7-5 to reach Saturday’s championship match.

From the virtual media room

Some of the takeaways from Naomi Osaka’s 16-minute virtual press conference Friday:

• “After my quarters match, I saw everything the NBA was doing. Then, I felt like I also needed to raise my voice, too. So, I called my agent, and we talked it over. Then, we called the WTA, and they said they would love to support and they were going to push play back a day. So, I put out my statement.

“I feel like this is where everyone gets confused, because I didn’t say I was going to withdraw from the tournament. I just said I wasn’t going to play the next day.”

• “I feel like it’s been kind of hectic, and I honestly haven’t been able to get that much sleep… So, I’m glad I was able to win today.”

• “Of course, I feel extra pressure now that there are more eyes watching me. I would just say there’s a lot of pressure I put on myself, and of course, I feel like now there is another reason for me to want to win. But I feel like I have to reel back all those emotions and just focus on what I train for.”

• “I don’t feel like I’m being brave. I just feel like I’m doing what I should be doing. So, honestly, when people say courageous or anything, I don’t really resonate that well with it. 

“I just feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing in this moment.”

Saturday’s order of play

Women’s singles final / Louis Armstrong Stadium

[4/WC] Naomi Osaka vs. Victoria Azarenka, 11 a.m. (5 p.m. CEST)

Men’s singles final / Louis Armstrong Stadium

[1] Novak Djokovic vs. Milos Raonic, not before 1 p.m. (7 p.m. CEST)

Men’s doubles final / Grandstand

Jamie Murray/Neal Skupski vs. Pablo Carreño Busta/Alex de Minaur, 11 a.m. (5 p.m. CEST)

Women’s doubles final / Court 10

[3] Kveta Peschke/Demi Schuurs vs. [2] Nicole Melichar/Xu Yifan, 11 a.m. (5 p.m. CEST)