Late in a disastrous first set, Naomi Osaka scattered a forehand long and stared up into the Flushing blue sky.
Two points later, Osaka was broken for a third time by Victoria Azarenka and lost the first set 6-1 in 26 minutes without serving an ace. Her serve had abandoned her.
Someone apparently was looking down on Osaka. Shaky no more, Osaka rocketed her way back, rallied to win the next two sets and captured her second U.S. Open title in three years with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph on Saturday at Ashe Stadium.
Though Osaka’s comeback ended Azarenka’s fairy-tale Flushing run, the Japanese-Haitian/former Long Islander weaved her own wonderful storybook in posting a third Grand Slam title at age 22.
Osaka made headlines as a tennis pioneer for social justice. And this Open championship came without the controversy of her 2018 title marred by Serena Williams’ chair-umpire meltdown with fans booing during the title ceremony.
This ceremony contained a mostly empty stadium as the Open staged the tournament despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moments after the victory, Osaka lay on her back for 45 seconds, staring up at the sky.
“I always see everyone collapse after match point,’’ Osaka said. “I thought I may injure myself so I wanted to do it safely.”
The match was played before about 200 people — more than any other match — as a group of staff workers were permitted to go inside and watch the women’s final.
Osaka originally forfeited her semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open two weeks ago to follow the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
Then at the Open, Osaka wore seven different masks for each match scrawled with the name of a victim of police brutality. Osaka wore “Tamir Rice’’ for the finals — in memory of a Cleveland youngster.
Osaka was down a set and a break at 0-2 before her spectacular rally, breaking Azarenka twice in the second set. At 5-3, Osaka posted her second one, blistering two service-return winners and a stinging crosscourt passing shot with Azarenka darting in.
In the third set, Osaka got up a break at 3-1 — lowlighted by a 71 mph double fault by Azarenka. Osaka then fell behind love-40 on her serve before fighting back to win five straight points for the hold to take a 4-1 lead. Azarenka broke back to get back on serve at 4-3 in the third set. It was veering into a classic match.
Osaka broke right back winning a long rally to set up a break point and Azarenka hit one long to allow Osaka to serve for the match at 5-3.
Osaka was broken in the match’s opening game, hitting a double fault on the first point. After the lost first game, Osaka stopped while walking off for the changeover, took a deep breath and looked up before continuing. Eventually, she settled down to become a three-time Grand Slam champion.
This was Azarenka’s first Grand Slam final appearance in seven years.
The Belarus native had been a tennis afterthought since 2015 after winning the Australian Open twice and being No. 1 in the world.