Naomi Osaka pulled off an incredible comeback to defeat Victoria Azarenka in the US Open final.
The world No. 9 imploded in the first set but bounced back in remarkable fashion to win the decider 1-6 6-3 6-3 as Azarenka suffered a meltdown of her own in the final two sets.
The victory gives Osaka her third grand slam title and second US Open crown after she got the better of Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows in 2018.
It’s also the first time since 1994 a woman has come back from a set down to win the US Open.
The newly-minted champion laid flat on her back on the court as she soaked up the magnitude of her accomplishment, giving photographers the chance to capture an iconic moment of a truly bizarre grand slam that has been played behind closed doors because of COVID-19.
“I always see everyone collapse after match point. But I always think you may injure yourself so I wanted to do it safely,” Osaka said of her post-match move.
Asked how she turned things around after her early wobbles, Osaka replied: “I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under hour.
“I want to congratulate Vika. I actually don’t want to play you in more finals.
“I didn’t really enjoy that, that was a really tough match for me.”
There was also a funny moment after the match when Osaka’s team posed alongside her holding the trophy. Her boyfriend, rapper Cordae, looked unsure about whether he belonged in the family photo, but was eventually encouraged by Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette to get in the frame.
Cordae also looked like didn’t know what pose to strike, feigning to take a knee before deciding to stand to attention — although his active hands didn’t escape scrutiny.
Silverware looked well out of Osaka’s reach as she fell to water in the opening set, plagued by unforced errors and losing her serve completely.
Azarenka, searching for her first major trophy in seven years, was unstoppable off her own racquet as her first-serve percentage soared above 90 per cent. She gave Osaka nothing and the 22-year-old looked to be wilting under the weight of expectation.
It was a similar story to start the second set. Azarenka broke early and breezed to a 2-0 lead before Osaka settled and found her range. The Japanese star used her ground strokes more effectively to keep her 31-year-old opponent in baseline rallies as her confidence grew.
She broke for the first time in the match and levelled things up at 2-2, before breaking again to close out the set 6-3. Osaka punched out 16 winners, compared to just five unforced errors as she completely turned the tables.
Osaka maintained the rage in the third set, stretching out to a 4-1 lead before Azarenka broke back to bring things back on serve at 3-4 — but Osaka broke straight back for 5-3 and served out the match.
Osaka has led the way in tennis when it comes to fighting against racial injustice, and she brought seven face masks to New York, each bearing the name of a victim of racism or police brutality.
By winning seven matches, she had the chance to display them all. Asked on court by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi what message she wanted to send, Osaka replied: “Well, what was the message you got? Isn’t that more the question?
“The point is to make people start talking.”
Azarenka enjoyed a dream run at Flushing Meadows and early in the third set it looked like she was going to cap off her fairytale with the trophy. But the veteran couldn’t keep up in the face of Osaka’s resurgence.
Azarenka was chasing her third major title — and first since becoming a mother in 2016 — but suffered her third US Open final defeat after also losing deciders in 2012 and 2013.
“I thought third time would be the charm. But I guess I will just try again,” she said.
“Congratulations to Naomi and your team. I hope we can meet in some more finals again.”