2020 Top Matches, No. 1: Off-court motivation helps Osaka top Brady

2020 Top Matches, No. 1: Off-court motivation helps Osaka top Brady

For her semifinal clash against the American, the 23-year-old Japanese wore her sixth mask, which honored Philando Castile.

We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old African-American boy who was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. A friend had given Rice a toy gun, which he was playing with in a park. Someone called the police and reported that a young man had a pistol, which was “probably fake.” Two officers arrived, and one of them, Timothy Loehmann, shot Rice almost immediately. The officers said they believed Rice was about to pull a real gun out of his waistband, a claim that was disputed by an expert hired by Rice’s family who reviewed videotape of the incident. A grand jury declined to indict the officers, the city settled a $6 million lawsuit with the family, and three years later Loehmann was fired for having lied on his police application.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, before her semifinal at this year’s US Open or maybe even during it, Naomi Osaka may have thought about Tamir Rice. At the start of the tournament, she had vowed to walk on court for each of her matches wearing a mask that bore the name of an African-American who had died at the hands of law enforcement, or self-proclaimed law enforcement, in recent years. It was a way for Osaka to raise awareness about police violence, and to give herself a greater sense of purpose each time she played.

“I wanted more people to say more names,” she said.

As far as motivational tools go, this was serious stuff. Those masks and the names on them were obviously deeply important to many people, especially the families of the victims, some of whom reached out to thank Osaka. As the rounds went on, and she remained confined in the US Open’s Covid bubble day after day, the 22-year-old felt the pressure.

“Everything off the court was definitely building up,” Osaka said when the Open was over. “I had some moments where I was very stressed out.”

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For her match against Jennifer Brady of the U.S., Osaka wore her sixth mask, which honored Philando Castile. That left just one more mask: Tamir Rice’s. If Osaka lost to Brady, she wouldn’t get to walk into Ashe Stadium wearing it, and wouldn’t get to remind the world of Rice’s life and death. This is more pressure than most athletes would want to put on themselves, but it worked for Osaka, and for everyone watching her play Brady. Their semifinal was the match of the year.

It was everything a Grand Slam semi should be, one where the quality of play was high to start, and only rose higher from there. By winning the first set, Osaka forced Brady to play better, and Brady responded. By winning the second set, Brady forced Osaka to play better in the third, and Osaka responded. Big serves were matched by big serves, and each woman was broken just once. Winners from one were matched by winners from the other; each finished with 35, and each hit significantly more winners than errors. Surges of good play from one side of the net were met by surges from the other, and neither dropped her level for more than a game. Osaka’s machine-gun-style ground strokes—few players generate more power more compactly—were matched by the far-ranging athleticism of Brady, who hit her forehand winners crosscourt, down the line, inside-out, and inside-in. ESPN’s court-side commentators, Rennae Stubbs and Brad Gilbert, had the same reaction from the front row: “These two are clocking the ball.”

Over two hours and eight minutes, just a few passages of play made the difference. The first came in the opening-set tiebreaker. After staying solid all set, Brady, who was playing her first major semifinal, betrayed her inexperience on a Grand Slam stage. She put a forehand pass into the net, sent a second-serve return long, and hit a regulation forehand wide to go down 1-5.

But one of the highlights of this match was seeing Brady regroup, adjust her tactics, and grow in confidence. Early on, she couldn’t do much with Osaka’s fairly ordinary second serves. But in the second set, she found the answer: She stopped going for winners, and started going straight at Osaka. The strategy earned her a break at 4-3, and for a few games after that she was the better player. Brady played defense, she played with consistency, and it looked as if her momentum might sweep her into the final.

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Then it was Osaka’s turn to adapt. Serving at 1-1 in the third, she was ready for Brady’s bigger returns, and she fired them back for two winners of her own. Osaka continued with two more winners on Brady’s serve in the next game, and broke when Brady failed to challenge a backhand that was called long, but was later shown to have caught a sliver of the baseline.

“I tried to adjust on her serve in the third set,” Osaka said, “and maybe that made the difference.”

Brady hung in through the third and forced Osaka to close it out. Osaka was up to the task—but not without a wobble. Serving for the match at 5-3, she lost control of her toss and double faulted. But as she had all night, she came right back with a big serve—116 m.p.h. in this case—to stop the slide. She followed that with a forehand winner to reach match point, and one last unreturnable serve up the T to win it.

Brady walked off waving to the invisible crowd in Ashe Stadium. Osaka said with a smile, “I love the atmosphere, even though there’s no one here.”

They put on a show worthy of a 23,000-fan crowd, and worthy of a long ovation when it was over. Two days later, Osaka would wear Tamir Rice’s mask into Ashe Stadium, and beat Victoria Azarenka for the title. In winning her third Slam, Osaka had made the most of her platform, and proven something to herself.

“I think all in all it's the person that’s very mentally strong [who wins],” Osaka said after the final. “For me, it's one step forward because I always wanted to be that type of person.”

Osaka is already that type of person, and, step by step, she may change how we think of what tennis players and athletes can do with their lives and careers. At this Open, she showed us that, even in this individual game, you can play your best when you’re playing for more than just yourself.