Naomi Osaka talked the talk then walked the walk. She withdrew from Cincinnati semifinals on Wednesday to join the national protest for racial inequality and social injustice. Osaka made national news for leading tennis to take a stand and as a result the tournament postponed the Thursday semifinal to Friday.
So today, with the news still swirling, the 22-year-old was able to put all that aside the hang on to beat Elise Mertens 6-2, 7-6(5) and reach her first Cincinnati final.
After a hot start by Osaka, Mertens got on top in the second leading 4-2. Osaka came back then held off eight break points at 4-all, eventually taking it in a breaker to reach her eighth career final.
“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,” Osaka said.
“This is my first tournament back from quarantine,” Osaka added. “So I’m happy that I’m in the finals.”
Osaka also talked about how the last 48 hours have gone.
“It was hard because I felt like I put myself in a really good position,” Osaka said. “When I was practicing during quarantine, all I thought of was playing tournaments. So just to be in the semis of a tournament I felt was something that I could really be proud of.
“It was also at the same time easy, because I felt like I needed to raise my voice. If withdrawing from a tournament would cause the most stir, then it’s something that I would have to do.
“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.”
Osaka will now meet another 2-time Slam champion and former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka, who won the 2013 Cincinnati title, returned to the championship match with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over British No. 1 Johanna Konta.
“I think it was a really good, high quality match overall,” Azarenka said. “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,” she added. “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.”
Osaka has won two of three from the Belarussian including the last two.
“For me, it’s really cool to be able to play Vika now, because I played her in the French last year, but I know that probably her best surface is hard court and also my best surface is hard court,” said Osaka. “I think it will definitely be a really fun match.”
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