Japanese fourth seed Naomi Osaka won the semi-final match she once vowed not to play, defeating Belgium’s Elise Mertens on Friday to reach the ATP and WTA Western & Southern Open final. Osaka’s 6-2, 7-6 (7/5) victory advanced her into Saturday’s championship match against two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the same New York COVID-19 quarantine bubble where the US Open will begin on Monday. Azarenka defeated British eighth seed Johanna Konta 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the other semi-final of the US Open tuneup, which is typically played in Cincinnati but was moved in the wake of the deadly virus outbreak.
Later the men’s semi-finals sent world number one Novak Djokovic of Serbia against Spanish eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut and Greek fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas against Canada’s Milos Raonic.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Osaka said Wednesday she wouldn’t play in the semi-finals to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis,” Osaka said Wednesday.
“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Osaka said she was “sick to her stomach” and “exhausted” by repeated violence against blacks by US police.
Her move, coming in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks boycotting their NBA playoff game for the same reason, prompted the WTA and ATP to postpone all semi-final matches to Friday, which inspired Osaka to change her mind and play.
“For me, this is very different from any semis I’ve ever played,” Osaka said just before walking on the court Friday.
“Definitely, the emotions are very different. All I want to focus on is the tennis ball.”
Mertens was supportive of Osaka and unfazed by the off-again, on-again status of the match.
“I totally get her reason 100% so I’m totally supporting her too,” Mertens said before the match. “Let’s go to the semi-final and see who wins.”
Osaka, the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open champion, broke for a 2-0 lead and again in the eighth game to take the first set in 38 minutes.
After Osaka broke again for a 2-0 edge in the second set, Mertens rolled through the next four games to seize the lead.
Osaka broke back in the seventh game and held to pull level at 4-4, then battled to the tie-breaker, which she won when Mertens hit a backhand wide.
The Japanese star saved 18 of the 21 break points she faced.
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