2020 US Open champion Naomi Osaka joins the WTA Insider Podcast after becoming the first woman in 25 years to rally from a set down in a US Open final, defeating Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 to capture her 2nd US Open title and third major overall.
Osaka rallied from a 6-1, 2-0 deficit to reel in Azarenka in Saturday's final, capping a three-week stint in the bubble that saw her advance to her first final of the year at the Western & Southern Open, before becoming the youngest player since Maria Sharapova in 2008 to win her third major title.
Osaka finishes her season restart on an 11-match win-streak, and she did it all while actively working to bring awareness to black victims of police violence, wearing seven different masks over the fortnight bearing the names of black victims.
Osaka reflects on how she was able to manufacture her comeback in the final, what made this US Open title run different from her other major success, and how she hopes her activism can change the sport.
WTA Insider: What did you learn about yourself as a player and a person over the last two weeks?
Osaka: I think what I learned the most is that there are so many things that can be happening outside the court, but once you're in the court those things don't matter. You have to focus on what it takes to win. For me, I felt like I just really wanted to be positive this entire time. I'm just grateful to be here. I'm grateful that the tournament is going on.
WTA Insider: You're undefeated since the season restart, but it's easy to forget that you went into the shutdown on a three-match losing streak. When you were reflecting on how you wanted to come out of the shutdown, what triggered this focus on attitude?
Osaka: I was just rethinking all the matches that I lost and the most common thing that I could think of was that I wasn't positive during any of those matches. I had so many things on my mind.
I feel like the quarantine was good for me because I was able to meditate. I was able to think a lot about what I wanted to do. And so I feel like, in a way, it sort of forced me to think about things that I wasn't really comfortable talking about. And I was able to come here with sort of a clear mind.
WTA Insider: Your coach Wim Fissette has been quite complimentary about your ability to make adjustments during matches. What did you do to turn this match around after being down 6-1, 2-0.
Osaka: I feel like tactically I was afraid of her backhand too much in the first set. I felt like I was just setting it up for her on the forehand side. Everyone knows Vika's backhand is amazing. So I felt like maybe I respected it too much.
In the second set, when things weren't going my way early, I just felt like no matter what happens, maybe I should just make it physical. Maybe we should just take turns running side to side and that's how I win, which isn't pretty, but I feel like maybe it would have gotten the job done.
WTA Insider: Speaking of your physicality, you added Yutaka Nakamura to your team. What were your workouts like during the shutdown?
Osaka: It was very tough and it was under really weird conditions because we have to wear a mask in the gym and stuff. So of course it was definitely strange, but I feel like I was super motivated, especially how I entered the quarantine, just to get matches to compete, because I don't really like practicing. I would rather play matches.
So my thing was just seeing how good or how far I can push my physical ability in order to play a tournament.
WTA Insider: How does this title run compare to 2018 US Open or 2019 Australian Open? What makes this run unique compared to those?
Osaka: I think in this run, I'm way more grateful. When I was younger, I feel like everything just went really fast and I wasn't aware of how much work it took to win a Grand Slam.
I think now after failing, which I guess it's not a failure, but failing to win a Grand Slam after the Australian Open. It really hurt my feelings a lot. I just sort of meditated on it and I told myself if you work as hard as you can, hopefully the results will come. I worked really hard during quarantine and the result came. So I'll just keep using that method until it fails me again.
WTA Insider: How do you maintain that calm and positivity with everything swirling around you? In years past you could take a walk around Manhattan to take your mind off things. That wasn't the case this year.
Osaka: For me, I feel like the last time I won this during my off days, I would walk around Manhattan and sort of soak in the city, soak in the vibes. And this time it was definitely very different because you're stuck in the house.
I just overthought a lot. I had some moments where I was just very sad. But when I was sad, I just talked to my team. In the end, tennis is very mental. And you have to keep that in mind because, you know, everyone's in the bubble. So my opponents could possibly be feeling the same way as me. So I just kept reminding myself of that.
WTA Insider: What have things been like with Wim? He said that your first swing together, down in Australia, gave him a good set of data points to work on going forward.
Osaka: Mr. Data (laughs). I would say I felt very bad for him because there are things that he coaches me on, but emotionally, I'm just not there. And I think that the tournaments before, earlier this year, I was just emotionally exhausted.
But it's been great having him. He loves to work hard. He loves to talk. He's not too hard on me. And he sort of understands, or we have discussions on what I'm feeling, what my viewpoint is in certain situations. So it's very nice to have him on board.
WTA Insider: On the topic of your activism over the last three weeks, you said you wanted to start a conversation and raise awareness around black men and women killed by police violence. I know you have been in a bubble, but do you feel like that conversation has happened within the tennis community?
Osaka: I mean, I felt the impact when the tournament stopped for a day, which I thought was really amazing that they would do that and they wanted to take a stand. I personally don't really talk to a lot of players, but the players that I talk to were very supportive. They seemed to ask questions. Stefanos Tsitsipas was in the suite next to me. We sort of started talking more and he asked questions.
I feel like I wouldn't know the impact, you know? I feel like it would be more branched out towards players like discussing within themselves. But it's not necessarily a subject. I feel like they would come face to face with me. Which is why I thought Stefanos was really interesting, because as soon as he heard it, he, like, texted me asking questions.
WTA Insider: What would you like tennis to moving forward when it comes to discussing racial inequality and embracing athlete activism?
Osaka: I feel like they're doing a great job adjusting. But there are some times where you have to be at the forefront. I feel like a lot of sports waited for the NBA to start something. And sometimes it's just better to do your own thing, you know? And I feel like as more players get comfortable speaking about things that they're passionate about, you know, the WTA will change. Things change, and they'll just adjust to what's happening at the time.
WTA Insider: Two years ago after your title run here, you said you were craving nothing more than green tea ice creak. Is there anything you're dying to get your hands on now that you can leave the bubble?
Osaka: Honestly, I haven't been craving anything or things like that. I really want to see my mom and dad and my dog. I feel like that would be the number one thing that I want.