NEW YORK (Reuters) – Naomi Osaka beat Belgian Elise Mertens to reach the Western & Southern Open final on Friday after playing in a semi-final she had originally withdrawn from in a call for racial justice.
Japan’s Osaka, who walked onto the Grandstand court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, sealed a 6-2 7-6(5) win on her second match point when Mertens put a backhand return wide.
The world number 10 said on court after the two-hour match that it had been a stressful 48 hours and she was not able to sleep much last night.
“I’m really glad I was able to play at a pretty good level,” said fourth seed Osaka. “I’m really glad I didn’t mentally collapse. I was down a break in the second and I was really tight in the tiebreak too.”
Osaka broke Mertens three times to race through the opening set but was forced to dig deep after the 14th-seeded Belgian won four straight games to go 4-2 up in the second set.
But Osaka, 22, settled down and broke to level at 4-4 and then brilliantly saved eight break points to pull ahead 5-4 before displaying exceptional power in the tiebreak.
On Wednesday, hours after booking her place in the last four at the U.S. Open tune-up event, the Japanese joined the athlete-led protest over the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin last week and said she wold not play her Thursday semi-final.
But Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father and has been a vocal supporter of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, changed her mind after organisers subsequently announced a pause in play and postponed all semi-final action by a day.
In the final Osaka will face Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who beat British eighth seed Johanna Konta 4-6 6-4 6-1.
The tournament, normally held in Cincinnati, is being played this year at the home of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows in a bid to limit travel and help stem the spread of COVID-19.
The Grand Slam tournament begins on Monday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)