Could it only have been two years ago that Naomi Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open and dissolved in tears, overwhelmed, as she was, by the chaos and the occasion? Saturday, two years older but immeasurably better situated to deal with the fame she has earned, Osaka beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3,-6-3 to win the 2020 women’s title. It was a strange match to culminate this most unusual tournament. But, ultimately, the younger and better player won. And in so doing, she cemented herself as the WTA’s future.
While men’s tennis savors the Big Three—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—but wonders what the hell the future holds and who the hell will fill that canyonesque void when they retire, the WTA has no such issue. By winning Saturday, Osaka takes her third major title and she is still only 22. (The other four active players with three or more majors are each in their 30s). Osaka is a dynamic and athletic player. She is still a work in progress. And the celebrity trappings she’s admitted to sometimes finding confining are fitting her much better these days.
Barely two weeks ago, Osaka announced she would not be playing her semifinal match in a tune-up event, preferring not to distract from Black Lives Matter protests and the outrage over Jacob Blake’s shooting. The entire tennis ecosystem scrambled in response to her, and all matches were called off that day. Such is Osaka’s moral authority and currency these days.
At the U.S. Open, she announced she would be wearing a mask adorned with a victim of police brutality for each of her seven matches. This show of activism was rightly noted. Less remarked upon: she anticipated sticking around for 7 matches, a supreme show of self-belief.
She kept to her wardrobe by winning her first six matches with play that ranged from extraordinary to good-enough-to-advance. Saturday's seventh match was definitely the latter. After taking the court with a “Tamir Rice” mask, Osaka lost the first set, 6-1, in roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence. But—recalling Serena at her height—Osaka simply was not going to leave the court as the non-winner. That simple. She regrouped to win the last two sets. This will not go down as a classic, but she completed the job, as champions do.
Osaka will now head to the French Open to do what she did two years ago, and win the subsequent major. (Then, she took the 2019 Australian Open.) But she also now heads to a new level of stardom. Already, per Forbes, the highest paid female athlete in the world, Osaka’s profile has swollen, incalculably, in the last three weeks. She may have played in front of no fans in New York, but she won over millions worldwide. As the 2021 Olympics loom, Osaka, representing Japan, will find the glare even more intense. But she has shown it bounces right off of her. And it exacts no price on her tennis.