NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- Naomi Osaka won a battle between former world No. 1s when she beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 on Saturday to claim her second U.S. Open title and third women's singles Grand Slam.
The 22-year-old Osaka, who is set for a return to No. 3 in the world rankings, recovered from a swift opening-set loss and became the youngest three-time Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova won the Australian Open in 2008.
"I thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour so I just have to try as hard as I can and stop having a really bad attitude," Osaka said of her mindset after dropping the first set in an on-court interview.
"I think I fought for every match starting with the Cincinnati tournament leading up to here."
The Japan-born star won her sixth career title and surpassed Li Na for most major wins by an Asian singles player.
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner, had dispatched six-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams in the semifinals to reach the tournament's final for the third time in her career.
"I thought the third time was the charm but I guess I'll have to try again," Azarenka said. "Congratulations to Naomi...I hope we can meet in some more finals again."
"I actually don't want to play you in more finals," Osaka jokingly responded. "I didn't really enjoy that. It was a really tough match for me."
Osaka, the No. 4 seed, entered the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium having given up only five break points, but was broken three times in the first set while making 13 unforced errors and serving two double faults.
The 31-year-old Azarenka breezed through the opener in 26 minutes by winning 94 percent of points on her first serve and crushing seven winners.
But Osaka doused her unseeded opponent's fire in the second set, serving up five aces and breaking the Belarusian in the seventh game to claim her first lead of the match. Osaka rebounded from 40-15 down in the final game and saved three game points before winning the set on a forehand winner.
With Osaka up 2-1 in the decider, Azarenka committed a crucial double fault and lost break on a forehand forced error. Osaka fought back from love-40 in the next game and seized five straight points to hold, then broke Azarenka back to serve for her third Grand Slam title.
After sealing the comeback victory in a 13-shot rally, Osaka walked to the center of the court and calmly lied down, soaking in the moment.
"I always see everyone sort of collapse after match point, but I always think you may injure yourself so I wanted to do it safely," she said.
Before the match, Osaka noted that the "occasion is different without fans but whenever I step on the court I want to win." The U.S. Open is being held this year entirely behind closed doors to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Osaka won back-to-back majors at the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open but was unable to retain her title in Melbourne last January in her last tournament before the five-month coronavirus shutdown.
Osaka and Azarenka were set to meet in the final of the Western and Southern Open played this year in Flushing Meadows immediately before the U.S. Open, but Osaka pulled out with a hamstring injury, leaving the Belarusian to claim the crown.
Last month, Osaka, who is of Japanese-Haitian descent, joined a wave of athletes from across the spectrum of American professional sports boycotting play to protest racial injustice.
She posted in a now-viral tweet she would not be playing her semifinal match at the Western and Southern Open to protest "continued genocide of black people," though she later agreed to play in the U.S. Open tune-up after tournament organizers temporarily called off play in solidarity with Osaka's stand.
During each round of the U.S. Open, Osaka has worn a different mask bearing the name of a black victim of alleged police or racist violence in the United States.
She entered Saturday's final honoring Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy who was fatally shot in November 2014 by white police officer Timothy Loehmann while holding what later turned out to be a replica toy gun.
Osaka's initial decision not to play in Cincinnati followed the August shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as a number of other recent cases involving black victims, including the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.
When asked what she intended to accomplish with the masks, Osaka said that her point was "to make people start talking" and raise awareness through social media.