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Cincy Tennis In New York • Great Ladies WTA Finals • Naomi Osaka Plays Vika Azeranka

Naomi Osaka of Japan in action against Elise Mertens of Belgium during their semi-finals match at the Western and Southern Open.

By Alix Ramsay

So, Naomi Osaka will play Vika Azarenka for the Western and Southern Open title. It sounds so simple but with both of them having huge back stories, it is anything but.

Osaka, she who prompted the suspension of tournament play on Thursday, is now in a new position. Two days ago, she was simply a former world No.1, a former US Open champion and a highly ranked player aiming for another title. And then she pulled out of the main draw.

When she did that on Wednesday night in support of the fight against racism and to support Black Lives Matter in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, she thought she was making a personal protest. Then the tournament decided to suspend all play on Thursday and, suddenly, she was a political torch bearer.

“For me, it’s definitely a bit eye-opening but in an odd way, because I only previously thought, like, the Big Three [Federer, Nadal and Djokovic] and Serena would have that type of power,” she said having reached the final by beating Elise Mertens.

“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 that one player.”

She was that, all right, and as she took a 6-2, 2-0 lead over Mertens, she was also that sort of player who might run away with the match. That was when Mertens fought back and Osaka’s game went AWOL.

Elise Mertens of Belgium battled back against Naomi Osaka but lost 6-2, 7-6.

As the Belgian dug in, so every game for Osaka became a struggle. When, finally, she got through 6-2, 7-6, she admitted that her greatest achievement was that she did not “mentally collapse”. The pressure to win was bad enough but now that she had entered the political sphere, the pressure was even greater.

Naomi Osaka of Japan wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt while she walks over to the Grandstand court for her match against Elise Mertens.

“This is my first tournament back from quarantine,” she said. “So, I’m happy that I’m in the finals. Of course, I feel extra pressure now that there is 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.”

As for why she did she did what she did, she made it sound so simple. The end result, though has been anything but.

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

Naomi Osaka reacts during her match with Elise Mertens.

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

On Saturday, she will play Azarenka for the title. On paper, it looks like Osaka is the nailed-on favourite to win and yet this is Vika we are talking about. She may be eight years away from her time as No.1 and seven years away from her last grand slam title but she is still the ferocious competitor she always was and, against Johanna Konta, she proved it over two hours and 18 minutes to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Konta had been the form player of the week until this point. Now working with Thomas Hogstedt, she had looked relaxed (which was a revelation), she had been playing with precision and she had been blitzing any opponent put in front of her.

For those of us watching events unfold on Amazon Prime, the TV rights holder based in Britain and stuffed to the gunwales with former players from our damp little rock, we had heard everyone purr about how well Jo-Ko was playing, how far she could go and how she was in such a good place mentally and physically. Jo-Ko, then, was the only story in the bio-bubble.

There was one voice caution, however, and it was that of Tiger Tim Henman. Now aged 45 and 13 years retired, he has a measured view of tennis and of life in general (married with three daughters, he knows his place in the world…and Tiger Tim has to fight for his place pecking order in Henman Towers. The girls will make see to that).

In his playing pomp, he could be tricky to deal with and was not one to step back from what had just happened on court and assess it with a clear eye (unlike, say, Andy Murray who has never shied away from his own failings).

Nowadays, Tim watches a match and has the distance and the experience to look at the situation sensibly. And when it came to Jo-Ko, he kept saying that she didn’t have to be quite so good. There were times when the percentage play would be enough.

Jo-Ko, though, is a very complex character. She wants to be very, very good; she knows she can be very, very good and it seems that she expects to be very, very good in every single point. Her A-game is spectacularly good but as Tiger Tim pointed out several times before she met Vika, there are times when her B+ game would be absolutely fine, too.

Johanna Konta of Great Britain in action against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus during their semi-finals match at the Western and Southern Open.

And so it was that Jo-Ko sprinted to an early lead in her own inimitable fashion and left Vika serving to stay in the first set. But then, for the first time, the precision shots that Britain’s No.1 wanted to play did not work. Vika, the former world No.1 and two-time grand slam champion, was merely warming up and as she walloped her backhand and upped the volume on her shriek, she repelled six set points. She could not stop Jo-Ko taking the set in the next game, mind you, but she had set out her stall: “I am here to stay!”

Jo-Ko, who had not lost her serve all week, then proceeded to drop serve five times. Vika was in the driving seat and there was little the Brit could do about it.

Victoria Azarenka beats Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a two hours and 18 minutes match.

In the days before motherhood and all the off-court problems Vika has had with custody battles – not mention all the injury issues – there was one woman Serena Williams respected above all others: Vika. She was the Belarussian equivalent to Serena: a ferocious competitor, a woman with a focus so intense that it was terrifying to all and someone who would forfeit a vital organ to get the win. And, oh my, could she snarl.

These days, Vika is a little mellower on the snarling front but she still knows how to play. Once she got her sights calibrated and her groundstrokes firing on both wings, she was unstoppable. And it was great to see. As the shriek got louder, so Jo-Ko’s chances became slimmer. No matter whether it was the A-game (a rarity after the first set) or the B+ game, nothing was going to stop the former world No.1 from winning.

The new, mellower Vika was enjoying every second of the moment. She had been outplayed in the first part of the first set and then she took control. No wonder that she was very happy.

Victoria Azarenka enjoying herself on the court.

“I think the key point for me is when some things don’t work out, it doesn’t maybe affect you as much,” she said. “You’re still a happy person to be doing what you’re doing, and that’s what I keep saying is that I’m enjoying myself to do what I love to do. I haven’t felt this way in so, so long, and probably ever, to be honest, like ever.

“So that’s just what I’m enjoying. I think people look at the result as magical week. I look more of how I feel and what I do on a daily basis. I’m joyful. I’m just happy to be playing. I’m enjoying myself on the court. I think I’m producing good tennis. So that’s as simple as that. There is no magic here. It’s just simple.”

And now, simply, she just has to win the title.