NEW YORK — After two days of little sleep and unexpected stress, Naomi Osaka was up to the moment.
The two-time Grand Slam champion returned to the court after bringing the push for racial justice to the forefront on the tennis tour, and she advanced to the finals of the Western & Southern Open on Friday with a straight-set victory.
This one meant a lot more.
“Of course I feel extra pressure now that there’s more eyes watching me,” she said.
After a one-day break in the tournament prompted by her decision to speak out, Osaka reached her first Western & Southern title match by gritting out a 6-2, 7-6 (5) victory over Elise Mertens.
The 22-year-old Osaka was hoping someone else in tennis would take the lead in speaking up for racial justice — she considers herself more of a follower — but realized she would have to make the first step. She acknowledged that it was “a bit frightening” to get so much attention the last two days, given how she prefers to stay in the background.
“I feel like it’s been kind of hectic and I honestly haven’t been able to get that much sleep yesterday, so I was glad to win today,” she said.
Osaka, the only Top 10 player left in the women’s bracket, tweeted after her semifinal victory that she was exhausted and “sick to my stomach” over the many Black people killed by police. She had decided to withdraw from the tournament as a statement in support of racial justice, joining athletes in other sports.
Other tennis players expressed support and the tournament was halted for one day, prompting Osaka to stay in the draw.
Back on court, how would she handle the emotions of the last few days?
“Preparing for this match was a bit stressful,” she said.
Even though her first serve was inconsistent — she made only half of them — the fourth-seeded Osaka fought off 18 of 21 break points while gritting it out.
“I totally respected her decision,” Mertens said of Osaka’s initial withdrawal. “I think it’s great what she does and she’s a role model for tennis. So I totally accept it.”
One alarming moment: Osaka grabbed her left hamstring after chasing a ball during the tiebreaker, but completed the match without pause. Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open and will be coming off a successful week — in many ways — heading into this one.
The Western & Southern Open was moved from Mason Ohio to the U.S. Open site in Flushing Meadows because of pandemic precautions, creating a two-tournament event without spectators.
The 31-year-old Azarenka considered retiring at the start of the year. She lost in the first round at Monterrey and to Venus Williams at Lexington last week.
Azarenka, ranked No. 59, smiled throughout her semifinal and raised her index finger after finishing it off. She has lost only one set this week, showing exuberance over her success. She’s been trying to more fun on the court.
“I haven’t felt this way in so, so long — probably ever, to be honest,” she said. “That’s what I’m enjoying.”
In the men’s bracket, Milos Raonic beat fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6 (5), 6-3 to reach the finals after fighting off a break point in the first set. Raonic was one of the first players to publicly support Naomi’s decision to drop out of the tournament.
“It’s not a political thing by any means,” he said Friday. “I think it’s a human right to not have that fear. I hope there’s a chance in the future, and I hope we as athletes can do a small part in that.”