Activist, champion: Naomi Osaka is AP Female Athlete of Year

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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With tennis, like so much of the world, shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Naomi Osaka found herself with time to read and think.

And while she won the U.S. Open for her third Grand Slam title, she also stood out for speaking out about racial injustice and police brutality.

As noteworthy in 2020 for her activism away from the tennis court as her success on it, Osaka was selected by The Associated Press as the Female Athlete of the Year in results revealed Sunday after a vote by AP member sports editors and AP beat writers.

“It was difficult to be isolated from my family for large parts of the year, but that’s nothing compared to others. It was sad to watch and read the news of people suffering from COVID-19, and the economic and social effect on so many – losing jobs, mental health. It was such a tough year for so many people,” Osaka wrote in an email interview. “And then watching the police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name just a few) in the summer broke my heart. I am proud of my U.S. Open victory, but more so that I got people talking about the real issues.”

Osaka collected 18 of 35 first-place votes and a total of 71 points.

WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart was next with nine first-place votes and 60 points, followed by Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt soccer player who kicked for the school’s football team, with one first-place vote and 24 points.

LeBron James was announced Saturday as the AP Male Athlete of the Year.

Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles title winner and a pioneering advocate for decades, praised Osaka for positioning “herself as a leader not only in women’s tennis but in all of sports and a force for change in our society.”

“She successfully completed the difficult task of taking excellence in sports performance and using that platform to succeed outside of sports on a much bigger stage,” King told the AP. “She ignited a conversation on social justice, the results of which were bigger than tennis, larger than sports, and in doing so raised the bar for all those who want to leverage the gifts and talents we have to make a difference in our world.”

Osaka went 16-3 during the coronavirus-truncated tennis calendar – the professional tours took about a five-month hiatus; Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since 1945 – and ended the year ranked No. 3.

The defining stretch of Osaka’s season came in August and September, when she compiled an 11-match winning streak that included the U.S. Open.

It was during a tuneup tournament in New York that Osaka – whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese – declared she would not play her semifinal, joining athletes from the NBA and elsewhere in protesting the police shooting of Blake.

“There are clearly so many worthy issues. This one especially resonated with me because of my own personal up-bringing; and also while the tennis tour was paused, I was able to watch and read news at length for the first time in my life. This summer in the U.S., tensions were high and reached boiling point,” Osaka said. “It was the right time for me to speak up.”

Taking her lead, that tournament shut down completely for a day.

“Her activism has shone a light on how we as individuals and sports leagues can collectively make an impact,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said. “Not only is she a phenomenal tennis player, but she also demonstrates how athletes have an opportunity to use their platform for something bigger than the game or themselves. Her actions are nothing short of inspiring and she is so very deserving of this recognition.”

During the U.S. Open, Osaka brought attention to Black victims of violence by arriving for matches wearing face masks bearing the names of Floyd, Taylor, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile.

“To be honest, I really didn’t stop to think about what others would think of my actions. Other people’s opinions weren’t going to stop me from doing what I know in my heart was the right thing to do,” Osaka said. “The strong voices of Colin (Kaepernick) and LeBron were certainly positive influences for me and gave me strength in my own convictions.”

Turning to 2021, the 23-year-old Osaka listed these goals: “work hard, do better, speak up, be kind.”

Japan, where she was born, is slated to host the postponed Olympics next year.

“I am looking forward most to being with the athletes that had waited and trained for over 10 years, for celebrating a very hard year (2020), and having that happen in Japan makes it that much more special,” Osaka said. “It’s a special and beautiful country filled with culture, history and beauty. I cannot be more excited.”

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”

Australia beats Croatia 2-1 to reach Davis Cup final

Day Four - Davis Cup Finals 2022
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MALAGA, Spain – Australia had to fight back twice to reach its first Davis Cup final in 19 years after beating Croatia 2-1.

Lleyton Hewitt’s team recovered from losing the first singles. Then the Australian doubles pair battled back from a set down in the decider.

Australia won its 28th and last title in 2003. It has finally got back to the final.

“I am so proud. Australia has a really rich history in this competition,” said Hewitt, who played a record 43 Davis Cup ties for Australia from 1999-2018.

“We have been fortunate to win it all on a number of occasions a long time ago. And I know what it meant to me as a player to play a final, and I am glad these guys can play it.”

Borna Coric put Croatia ahead by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 6-3, but Alex de Minaur leveled after defeating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 to send it to the doubles.

Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell then secured the semifinal win against Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic by 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

“This is what this team is about, that never-say-die attitude,” De Minaur said.

Canada will face Italy on Saturday in the other semifinal.

In the opener, Kokkinakis struck 11 aces, but Coric was able to break him once in each set.

“On my serve, I felt like it was an ace or he put it back on my toes,” Kokkinakis said.

Cilic, who was on the Croatia team that won the title in 2018, committed 10 double faults. That erratic serve helped De Minaur break Cilic four times and level his head-to-head record with the former U.S Open winner at two wins each.

Thompson and Purcell bettered the more experienced pair of Mektic and Pavic, both ranked in the top 10 in doubles. Thompson and Purcell combined for 13 aces, broke the Croats twice, and never dropped a service game to come back after losing the first-set tiebreaker.

Two-time winner Croatia was the runner-up last year.

“It proved too difficult on the court today,” Cilic said. “(But) for us it has been a great year again after the finals last year to reach the semis.”

The final is on Sunday on the indoor court in Malaga.