US Open champion and activist Naomi Osaka on how coronavirus pause affected her

Naomi Osaka admitted the coronavirus pandemic that brought tennis to a grinding halt allowed her to refocus and energise towards her goals, which has helped her win a second US Open title.

Osaka shot to stardom after beating Serena Williams – in one of the most famous Grand Slam finals of recent times – at the same tournament two years ago and she followed it up by winning the Australian Open to become world No. 1 a matter of months later.

She failed to defend both titles and struggled to cope with the extra demands of being the world’s best player, with her form dipping and her ranking slipping to No. 10.

Osaka has been a shining light in the tennis world both on and off the court and she found a calling for political activism during lockdown as she raised awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement.

That activism was on show during the US Open, she wore a different face mask for every round of the tournament, with each bearing the name of a black victim who was killed by police or racially motivated violence in the USA.

Putting the tennis rat race to one side during the pandemic, she enjoyed a period of introspection.

‘I would definitely say it’s been an important few months,’ Osaka said after beating Victoria Azarenka 1-6 6-3 6-3 in the US Open final.

‘For me, my life was always go, go tennis-wise, especially after the previous US Open that I won. It definitely accelerated things, and I’ve never had a chance to slow down.

‘The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by. For me, I came into this tournament, or these two tournaments, with that mindset.

‘I think it definitely helped me out.’

Osaka, the world’s best-paid female athlete, was keen to swerve comparisons between this US Open win and her previous triumph, which was overshadowed by Williams’ row with umpire Carlos Ramos.

‘I mean, this one feels different overall because of the circumstances I’m under,’ added Osaka. ‘I wasn’t in a bubble last time. There were a lot of fans last time.

‘Yeah, I feel like, you know, in the end all I focus on is what I can control on the tennis court. That’s what I did last time. I feel like that’s what I did this time.

‘I don’t really think about the past. Honestly, what’s in my mind right now is what happened, like, an hour ago. It’s different just because I feel like I’m a different person than I was back then.’

Where she will next play is unclear. The French Open starts in two weeks time but Osaka refused to commit to the clay-court Grand Slam.

‘I was planning to play when I came here, but I guess I’ll see what happens,’ she said.

While Osaka would not commit to the French Open, her opponent Azarenka is planning a quick dash across continents to play against Venus Williams in the first round of the Italian Open in Rome.

‘Am I intending to play? Yeah, I’m going on a flight tomorrow,’ Azarenka smiled.

‘It’s going to be fun. I’m very grateful. Actually, I have an opportunity to thank the Rome tournament for giving me a wild card. I’m very grateful for that opportunity.

‘I’m looking forward to play on clay. It’s going to be a quick turnaround, but it’s going to be fun.’

Azarenka, while disappointed not to get over the line, was full of admiration for her 22-year-old opponent, who claimed her third major title.

‘What do I think she can accomplish? I’ve not necessarily thought about it,’ said Azarenka. ‘I think she has proven that she’s able to maintain the level of Grand Slam success for three times now. So that proves a lot.

‘Her game is very powerful. Today we played a little bit of a different surface. I don’t necessarily remember that much the match that we played before, so I think I might need to look at it to kind of compare the matches.

‘But she’s a great player. She has a lot of weapons where you have to be, like, on top of her and execute really well. But, yeah, she’s pretty impressive player. I mean, she’s a US Open champion. What else can you say?’

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