Two days after leading her sport into a social justice work stoppage, Naomi Osaka won her semifinal match on Friday in the Western & Southern Open, a match she was willing to forfeit to spark a broader conversation in the tennis world about racism.
Osaka beat Elise Mertens of Belgium, 6-2, 7-6 (5), underneath a hazy sun and in a nearly silent stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, where the tournament was moved this year from Cincinnati so players could prepare for the United States Open while limiting travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
Osaka walked to the court in a black T-shirt with a picture of a clenched fist and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed across the front. She took command of the match early with her powerful serve and forehand. An overhead winner from the baseline in the second game of the match appeared to set the tone, though Osaka did grow shaky in the second set before prevailing.
She will play Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the tournament final on Saturday. Azarenka beat Johanna Konta of Britain, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, on Friday.
Osaka had won a hard-fought, three-set quarterfinal Wednesday afternoon. About five hours later, she announced that she would not play her semifinal match, initially scheduled for Thursday, to draw attention to the issue of police violence against Black people following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
Osaka was following the lead of the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks, the W.N.B.A., Major League Soccer and several Major League Baseball teams that decided not to play games Wednesday and Thursday.
Osaka’s announcement Wednesday night accelerated a discussion that tennis officials had been having that evening about how tennis needed to react to the sudden halt in sports after the shooting of Blake, said Chris Widmaier, the chief spokesman for the United States Tennis Association. U.S.T.A. officials and organizers of the Western & Southern Open had not decided on a course of action until Osaka announced her willingness to withdraw. Two hours later, tennis officials suspended play, in part to ease the onus of taking a stand from a single player.
That move and the decision not to withdraw Osaka from the tournament allowed Osaka to remain in the competition. By midday Thursday, she had committed to continuing when play resumed Friday.
“I was (and am) ready and prepared to concede the match to my opponent,” Osaka said Thursday. “However, after my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and U.S.T.A., I have agreed at their request to play on Friday. They offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement.”
Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s agent, made clear that she did not change her mind. “She decided that her impact would be greater by pausing — in the exact same way as the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. have done — which she did not know was an option at the time of her initial statement,” he said. “This is not a U-turn; this is a doubling down. This is a call to action.”
There is no instruction booklet on how to play at an elite level while trying to be one of the leading voices in sports for civil rights. Osaka flew to Minneapolis this year to join protests after the death of George Floyd, and has been outspoken on social media about the issues of systemic racism and police brutality.
As she understood it, she was probably going to be out of this tournament once she announced Wednesday night she would not play the semifinal.
Playing in a stadium largely devoid of spectators because tournament and health officials deemed allowing them to be too large a risk, Osaka on Friday did not have to deal with the emotional roller coaster that a crowd can produce during such pitched moments for an athlete. There was the occasional smattering of claps from the players’ team members, but little other noise during the two-hour match.
It was far from a perfect match for her, especially in the second set, when she struggled with her first serve and Mertens’s combination of power and spins put her within a few points from pulling even. Osaka lost her serve three times and saved 19 break points on a day when she landed just 50 percent of her first serves.
After an emotionally draining 24 hours, Osaka’s energy appeared to ebb. Growing frustrated, she slammed her racket against the court and repeatedly smacked herself in the leg.
But Osaka pulled off a searing crosscourt forehand to even the score at 4-4, then nailed a perfectly angled crosscourt backhand to save one of a series of break points the next game.
At the end, after a service winner, there was no celebration, just a quiet walk to the net and a tap of the racket with Mertens.