Osaka is a prodigy who became one of the biggest stars in tennis after beating Williams two years ago in the 2018 U.S. Open final. Brady turned pro relatively late after spending two years at U.C.L.A., and was making her debut in a Grand Slam semifinal.
Osaka has played with a medical bandage throughout the tournament around her left leg to protect a sore hamstring. She has also been outspoken throughout the summer about ending systemic racism and police violence against Black people, especially as tennis has returned from the pandemic.
Two weeks ago, after seeing the Milwaukee Bucks of the N.B.A. and teams in several professional sports leagues decide to sit out their scheduled games, Osaka announced that she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, a warm-up to the U.S. Open. Tournament officials then postponed all play for a day, allowing Osaka to continue. She advanced to the final but then conceded the match because of lingering hamstring soreness, resulting in Azarenka winning in a walkover.
During the U.S. Open, Osaka has worn Black Lives Matter T-shirts and masks with the names of Black people who have been killed, some by police. She said she began the U.S. Open with seven different masks, one for each match, including the final. Osaka’s breakout title in 2018 is mostly remembered for Serena Williams’s argument with an umpire after she was given a code violation for receiving coaching during the match, then a point penalty for slamming her racket to the concrete. Osaka beat Williams that night in straight sets — and the fans were clearly on Williams’s side.
It was hard not to imagine what this night might have been like in another year, with 23,000 fans packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium, their roars echoing off the closed roof. Instead, fans were not allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The emptiness gave way to something else — the culmination of more than four hours of fearless, tight, solo competition, with a distinctive purity. There was what was happening on the court and nothing else.
And when Azarenka finally finished it off, with one last ace on the outside edge of the line, winning by a fraction of an inch so close that Williams had challenged the call, it was too bad it had to end. Especially for Williams, whose hunt for that 24th major goes on.