Naomi Osaka, who shook up tennis by quitting then rejoining the Cincinnati Open to protest the continued police violence against African Americans, goes into the final on Saturday with her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, and the British No 1, Johanna Konta, both refusing to endorse her principled stand after their semi-final, in which Azarenka withstood an early onslaught by Konta to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Meanwhile Elise Mertens, whom Osaka beat 6-2, 7-6 (5) in the other semi-final, was glad to praise Osaka, who also received a messages of support from the Williams sisters and Billie Jean King.
Konta surprised those who know her by claiming to be altogether unaware of the issue, even though it was front-page news across the US that Osaka had declined to play on Thursday, after which the organisers suspended the tournament for a day, in keeping with sporting boycotts across the nation.
“I am not really up-to-date on current affairs,” Konta admitted. “I am very aware of the [Black Lives Matter] movement, and very aware of what has happened while I was at home. But I haven’t watched the news here. I didn’t see Naomi’s post. I really wasn’t aware of the situation in its entirety. That decision was taken out of my hands. I fully understand why the tournament and why the USTA, US Open, WTA and ATP decided the way that they did.”
Azaranka didn’t do much better in the awareness stakes: “To be honest, I don’t really pay attention to that,” she said when asked if she thought Osaka had done well to put her cause to one side for a couple of hours. “I think the most important thing is that tomorrow we’re going to play a good match,” she said. “And that’s it. Let’s talk about tennis. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Mertens, who would have received a walkover into the final had Osaka not changed her mind about playing in the semi-finals, had no reservations in declaring, “I’m actually happy that she played because I can see where my level is at against her. Even more important is the tournament that’s coming, the US Open. I totally respected her decision. I think it’s great what she does, and she’s a role model for tennis. So, totally accepted.”
Osaka was direct then coy when asked for her reaction to the comments of Konta and Azarenka.
“Honestly, when I posted it, I thought it would just make ground in tennis circles. I wasn’t aware of the reach that it would get.”
But it surely reached the locker room, although Osaka was charitable enough to say, “As for other players, if I were in the position where I didn’t know that much information, I wouldn’t make a comment either. I know both of them as people and they’re both really nice.
“I feel like you’re trying to dig a little bit, to be honest. I would say if there was an issue, they would come to me face to face.”