Naomi Osaka would have been excused if her mind was on other things during her semifinal match against Elise Mertens at the Western & Southern Open, but the former No.1 gutted out a 6-2, 7-6(5) win in over two hours to advance to her first final of the season. Osaka's win sets up a battle of former No.1s and two-time major champions as she takes on Victoria Azarenka.
Osaka's victory capped off an exhausting 48 hours for the two-time major champion, who decided to join in the athlete-led protests across American against racial injustice, which led to a one-day pause in play at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday.
"I honestly didn't think it would even be that big of a deal," Osaka said in an interview on ESPN after the match. "I thought I would just withdraw and make a statement. But then I got a call from Steve Simon and he said he was fully supportive so I'm really grateful for that."
After her semifinal victory, Osaka explained how her decision to lay down her racquet on Thursday played out.
"After my quarters match I saw everything the NBA was doing," Osaka told reporters. "Then I felt like I also needed to raise my voice, too. So I called Stu, my agent, and we talked it over. Then we called the WTA, and they said that they would love to support and they were going to push play back a day. So I put out my statement.
"I feel like this is where everyone gets confused, because I didn't say I was going to withdraw from the tournament. I just said I wasn't going to play the next day.
"But, yeah, I feel like it's been kind of hectic, and I honestly haven't been able to get that much sleep yesterday. So I'm glad I was able to win today."
After taking such a public stand on Thursday, Osaka said she came into the semifinals feeling as if it was a must-win match.
"Of course I feel extra pressure now that there are more eyes watching me," Osaka said. "I would just say there's a lot of pressure I put on myself, and of course I feel like now there is another reason for me to want to win, but I feel like I have to reel back all those emotions and just focus on what I train for."
Osaka was asked whether her decision to sit out on Thursday was a difficult one. The Western & Southern Open is Osaka's first event since the tour shut down in March and her first tournament since the Australian Open in January. Matches are at a premium as the players race the clock to find their form ahead of the US Open, which begins on Monday.
"It was hard because I felt like I put myself in a really good position," Osaka said. "When I was practicing during quarantine, all I thought of was playing tournaments. So just to be in the semis of a tournament I felt was something that I could really be proud of.
"It was also at the same time easy, because I felt like I needed to raise my voice. If withdrawing from a tournament would cause the most stir, then it's something that I would have to do.
"I don't feel like I'm being brave. I just feel like I'm doing what I should be doing. So honestly, when people say courageous or anything, I don't really resonate that well with it.
"I just feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing in this moment."
Just last week, Forbes Magazine anointed the 22-year-old the highest-paid female athlete in the world, but soft-spoken Osaka admits she's still getting used to her power and platform. She did not expect the reaction to be as big as it was.
"Honestly when I posted it, I just thought it would make rounds in the tennis circle," Osaka said. "I wasn't aware [of] the reach that it would get.
"So if I'm being completely honest, it was a bit frightening for me, and I had to turn off my phone because I get really anxious whenever I see people talking about me. But then, honestly, I did put myself in that situation, so that was kind of stupid. I would just say I didn't expect the response that I got."
"It's definitely a bit eye-opening but in an odd way, because I only previously thought the Big Three and Serena would have that type of power.
"But also, at the same time, I recognize the fact that maybe the WTA and ATP wanted to do something like this but they needed a push from a player to do something like this? So maybe I was sort of that one player.
"I think it's definitely really cool of them to do this and for them to be open to changing for social issues."
A year ago, Colin Kaepernick and Kobe Bryant sat together in Osaka's player box, watching her second-round win at the US Open. At the time, the image seemed to underline Osaka's growing star power over a 12-month span that saw her ascend to World No.1 after winning back-to-back majors at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open. A year on, Kaepernick and Bryant's influence continues with Osaka, who has vowed to use her voice and not "stick to sports".
"Honestly, I just hope Kobe would be proud of me," Osaka said.
"For me, I always felt like, in a weird way, I wasn't worthy of knowing him personally or having his number if I wanted to be able to text him. I always thought I should achieve more things before that.
"So that's, like, a big regret for me was that I didn't really talk to him as much as I wanted to."
A brave & impactful move by @naomiosaka, in support of the protest movement moving through the sports world.— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 27, 2020
She was to play in the semis tomorrow.
Athletes using platforms for good means so much.
Don’t remain silent.#BlackLivesMatter https://t.co/Tro3SlRXT8
Athlete activism has been ingrained in the DNA of the WTA since its inception. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic photo of the "Original 9" signing one-dollar contracts to form the Virginia Slims Tour, which would lead to Billie Jean King founding the WTA Tour in 1973.
Osaka says she's confident that the WTA's younger generation is more than ready to pick up the torch.
"I feel like the players are using their voice more, especially Coco [Gauff]. I love her for that. She seems to be taking charge both on and off the court, so it's really nice to see.
"I feel like maybe this generation of tennis players won't be too scared of the consequences of saying things that are on their mind. That would be really nice to see."