NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka is not just a favorite to win the 2020 U.S. Open. She is the tournament’s most passionate and vocal advocate for justice and equality, a crusade that has drawn widespread admiration. Her run at the Open wasn’t all that far from ending in the baking heat of Flushing Meadows on Friday afternoon.
The 2018 champion and the No. 4 seed, Osaka survived her third-round match with Marta Kostyuk of the Ukraine, but not before she slammed her racket, kicked her racket and two hours into the battle, seemed perilously close to going down in what would’ve been perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament.
The score was 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-2, but it was a lot more stressful than the digits might indicate against the 18-year-old Kostyuk, a big, fearless hitter with a splendid all-court game. Kostyuk, ranked No. 137 and a late addition to the field after a withdrawal, made it to the third round of Australia two years ago and then largely disappeared. She spent much of the match carrying on a conversation with her mother in the stands, and looked to be overflowing with self-loathing every time she made a mistake. She had to get two medical timeouts to have her right ankle wrapped, and her serve was under siege all day, but she powered through it all, and pushed Osaka to the limit.
“I have no idea (how I got through it),” Osaka said in an on-court interview. “She was very good. I am kind of scared how she’s going to be in the future.”
For the third straight match, Osaka took the court with the name of an African-American victim of racially charged violence, in this case Ahmaud Arbery, 25, an unarmed Black man who was shot by two white men while he was out for a run near Brunswick, Georgia, last February. Osaka says she has four more masks ready, and will get to show the world all of them should she make it to the final.
The match seemed uneventful enough at the outset, Osaka blistering a forehand to force an error to close out the first set. She could’ve made her day much shorter if she had won Game 4 of the second, a 20-point marathon in which she had abundant chances to break Kostyuk for 3-1. Kostyuk, her spirits uplifted, started drilling her returns and broke Osaka for the first time to go up 4-3, and wound up forcing a tiebreak. Osaka jumped out to a 2-1 lead, but Kotsyuk smashed an overhead winner – she dominated at the net the whole match – cracked a backhand winner and won when Osaka hit a limp backhand return wide. That’s when the racket got tossed.
Naomi Osaka of Japan reacts after winning a point against Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports)
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Osaka’s mood got much worse when Kotsyuk had five break points to go up 3-1 in the third. Osaka walloped a forehand crosscourt winner to dismiss one of the break chances, and then a service winner on the last one, and wound up getting the most important hold of the match.
She broke Kostyuk at 30 to go up 3-2, reeling off eight straight points and 12 of the last 13 points overall. It was a dizzying turnabout, coming immediately after Kotsyuk had done the same thing to her
“I felt like I had so many points I didn’t capitalize on,” Osaka said. She had the right feeling; she converted just five of her 21 break points. She had more errors (38) than winners (30), and on the whole was happy to get out of there and move on to the fourth round.
She was asked about her inner dialog when Kotsyuk took the tiebreak and had her wobbling early in the third.
“I was cursing myself out,” she said. “You don’t want to know what I was thinking.”
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey
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