Naomi Osaka would have made Arthur Ashe proud with her activism and US Open victory.
That is the opinion of tournament director and former head of the WTA, Stacey Allaster.
Osaka won her third grand slam title at Flushing Meadows on Saturday with a brilliant comeback victory over Victoria Azarenka, but her success will be remembered as much for her impact off the court as on it.
The 22-year-old, who is of mixed Japanese and Haitian heritage, used her platform to draw attention to racial injustice, wearing a different facemask for each match bearing the name of a black victim of violence.
It was fitting that she lifted the trophy in the arena named after Ashe, a pioneer and activist who was the first black man to win Wimbledon.
Allaster was one of the few people in the stadium to witness Osaka’s victory, and she said: “The leadership that she has played within our sport on Arthur Ashe Stadium, I was thinking about that, how proud Arthur would be.”
Osaka lay down on the court after her victory to soak it all in, and said she was thinking about all the great players she had seen do the same thing as she gazed at the sky.
By winning her third slam title, Osaka joins Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Angelique Kerber as the only active female players to have won at least three.
Osaka is a decade younger than all of them and now appears ready to embrace her role as a leader and a figurehead.
She is a more mature presence on court, too, and turned the match around brilliantly against Azarenka after winning just one of the first nine games.
“I think I could have easily faded away, but I really wanted to fight, just compete,” she said.
“Honestly, there wasn’t really another thought in my mind. I wasn’t really thinking about winning, I was just thinking about competing. Somehow I ended up with the trophy.
“I feel like I’ve definitely tried to mature. I wasn’t really sure the process that I was going to have to take. But I feel like the lessons that I learned with life definitely developed me as a person more.”
Whether Osaka makes the trip to Europe for the French Open starting in two weeks remains to be seen – she refused to commit on Saturday – but one player who definitely will be there is Azarenka.
Having made a spectacular return to the top of the game over the last month after three years in the tennis doldrums, Azarenka was planning to head straight to Rome, where she was due to face Venus Williams in the first round of the Italian Open.
“I’m kind of excited for that, to play on clay,” she said. “I haven’t had the best relationship with clay seasons for years. Last year I had a lot of fun.
“It will be very interesting for me to see how the French Open is going to handle the situation with the bubble life, with the Covid now. I hope they will do a good job of protecting the players first rather than making money.”
That last comment was a pointed one given the decision of the French Tennis Federation to allow up to 11,500 fans a day to attend the tournament despite a soaring infection rate in France.
The US Open was played behind closed doors and, while not entirely smooth sailing, did not run into as many problems as many had anticipated.
Allaster said: “I think these four weeks have been able to demonstrate to the world how our sport can return to play safely.
“We know that here we made one commitment to everyone: that this would be a safe US Open. On this championship Sunday we are closing down this very historic moment for our sport here in New York City with a very healthy and safe US Open.
“Everyone now is leaving and carrying on in our sport. That I think is the other big takeaway for us. We’re back.
“We’ve missed the fans. It hasn’t been the same without them. But no doubt in my mind it was the right decision for us here in New York.
“I trust that the French Federation, with their leadership, and the French government, that they’re managing the virus with their medical facts. They’ve deemed in their country, in their city, that it’s safe.
“I now wish them the greatest of success to have the same results that we’ve had: a safe Roland Garros, and inspiring tennis with amazing athletes for two weeks.”