Osaka, Azarenka To Play For US Open Women’s Title

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Both of Thursday’s US Open women’s semifinal matches, played with the roof closed on Arthur Ashe Stadium thanks to a rainy New York City evening, were characterized by toughness, tenacity and competitiveness.

In the first semifinal match, fourth seed Naomi Osaka of Japan defeated 28th seed Jennifer Brady from the United States, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3, in two hours and eight minutes. With the win, it marks the third straight year for Osaka reaching a major final following the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open.

The second semifinal match, billed as a “Battle of the Moms“, between third seed Serena Williams of the United States and 27th-ranked Victoria Azarenka from Belarus, was won by Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. It dashed Williams’s hope of winning an elusive 24th Grand Slam that would have tied her with Margaret Court. It was Serena’s ninth major appearance since returning from maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, three years ago.

Saturday’s final between the 22-year-old Osaka and Azarenka, 31, will be a battle of different generations as each goes after winning a third major title.

In Osaka-Brady, fans were treated to what was arguably the best women’s match of the 2020 US Open tournament. There was a talented display of big power hitting from both Osaka and Brady – possessors of two of the most potent forehand ground strokes in the game – and a big key was the ability of both to hold their serve and defend. In the end, Osaka had just a slight edge – she got an early break in the third set to go ahead 3-1 – and closed it out on her serve. It was the difference between victory and defeat. Perhaps, credit a bit more experience by Osaka, a little more match play on big courts. But Brady’s the real deal and her first WTA title, won at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., last month, was no fluke.

Looking back, the two combined for 19 services aces (Brady 10, Osaka 9) and just three double faults (Brady 2 and Osaka 1, which didn’t come until the final game of the match). Osaka won 84 percent of her first serves and Brady was successful 77 percent of the time. Both won more than 50 percent of their second-serve points and each hit 35 winners. Each was broken just once. Osaka outpointed Brady 99-88.

As Brady readied to walk off the court one last time with her head held high – having lost just two sets the entire tournament and one of them decided by a tiebreak – ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Chris Evert, who commented on the match, said of the 25-year-old American: “The players love her and she just has come a long, long way. The sky’s the limit for her. She’s definite Grand Slam potential.”

Then, Evert offered this insight on Osaka: “As far as Naomi, she just peaked at the right time. Everything was working in her game. If she can keep this type of a game, she’s going to be hard to beat. She needs to be healthy. She’s played a lot of tennis but she’s in the right frame of mind.”

Osaka was asked during her on-court interview after the match ended what made the difference between victory and defeat. She said: “Honestly, I don’t know, I just felt like I was sticking it out. We were trading serves. I tried to adjust a little bit on her serve in the third set. So, maybe that helped. … It’s really hard. Honestly, I had flashbacks of playing [Petra] Kvitova in the Australian Open final. Maybe that experience helped me out a bit.”

Then, Osaka, who won the 2018 US Open in her first Grand Slam final was asked to describe what it means to be in a second US Open final in just three years. She said: “It means a lot to me. I consider New York my second home. I really love the atmosphere even though sadly there are no people here. This court really suits me well.”

Going into Saturday’s final, Osaka has won her last 10 matches. When she was asked what the biggest reasons for her winning streak were, she said: “Honestly, I just felt like I wanted to come out of quarantine being positive, not really caring if I win or lose, but just knowing I put in 100 percent effort.”

Finally, Osaka was asked about her activism, which has drawn worldwide attention, and what has gratified her the most. She said: “For me, just knowing I’m reaching people. In this bubble, I’m not sure what’s going on in the outside world. Even a couple of days ago, when I got the video messages, it was really touching. Me and everyone I knew cried. Just knowing people are hearing my voice.”

Azarenka problem-solves Williams 

Azarenka was asked before the start of her semifinal match why she enjoys playing against Williams. She said: “It’s very simple: I like playing against the best. That’s where you see yourself, your level, the biggest challenge. That’s what I’m working hard for, to play on the biggest stages against the best players. There’s no one as tough mentally as Serena. I love that challenge.”

In their 23rd head-to-head meeting – and first since Indian Wells last year – Azarenka was up to the challenge. However, it wouldn’t be easy.

At the outset, Williams jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the 35-minute opening set against Azarenka and won it 6-1 with her 12th winner.

Then, in the second set, Azarenka broke in the fifth game with a backhand winner to go ahead 3-2. Later, she held for 5-3 by winning a 21-shot rally with a forehand winner and won the set 6-3 to force a decider. Azarenka hit 12 winners against just one unforced error during the middle set.

Early in the third set, Azarenka broke for a 2-0 lead with a forehand that Williams could not handle. It followed a medical timeout in which Serena received treatment on her left ankle. Azarenka consolidated the break for a 3-0 lead, winning with her second ace. It was at this point that many sensed a tremendous upset in the making.

As the intensity and volume increased in this all-out slugfest, both players continued to amaze and persevere. While signs of frustration were visibly apparent in Williams, Azarenka’s cool demeanor served her well and so did her ability to problem-solve Williams.

As Azarenka held for 5-2, just four points from advancing to her third US Open final – and a year removed from a first-round exit – the pressure was all on Williams, who served to stay alive. She held at 30 to trail 5-3, and the match was on Vika’s racquet.

Soon, match point arrived at 11:45 p.m. Ahead 40-30, Azarenka fired her third ace that clipped the line. It was challenged by Williams but confirmed in on replay by Hawk-Eye – and, suddenly without much fanfare, Vika had won the match in one hour and 55 minutes. The two competitors, who are friends off of the court, tapped their racquets and walked away to their respective benches.

What started as a dominant performance by Williams turned around in the second and third sets once Azarenka found her rhythm and showed dominating form from the baseline with her returns. She finished with 25 winners and 17 unforced errors (10 of which were in the first set), while Williams hit 35 winners and committed 28 unforced errors.

Azarenka, who beat Williams for the first time in a major competition, will advance to play in her first major final in seven years, the second longest gap between Grand Slam finals among women. “It’s been seven years? That’s my favorite number,” she said, smiling during her post-match interview. “I guess it was meant to be. I’m grateful for the opportunity. The road to the final requires you to beat the best players. Today was that day.”

Later during the interview, Azarenka said she hopes her victory inspires women to go after their dreams. “I feel like you can’t always identify yourself as just one thing, because we have many things we can do in our lives,” she said. “A parent is the most important thing I can be in my life, but I’m also a tennis player, a fighter on the court. I want to go after my personal dreams, to inspire my child. I hope women around the world know they can do anything. Being a parent is the toughest thing, so once you can balance that, you can do anything.”

Pavic and Soares win men’s doubles crown

Both Mate Pavic of Croatia and Bruno Soares from Brazil had enjoyed previous Grand Slam success with other partners. Pavic teamed with Oliver Marach of Austria to win the 2018 Australian Open while Soares paired with Jamie Murray of Great Britain to win the 2016 Australian Open and 2016 US Open. On Thursday, inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the unseeded Pavic and Soares duo won the 2020 US Open men’s doubles championship with a 7-5, 6-3 title win over eighth seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Nikola Mektic from Croatia. The final lasted one hour and 31 minutes.

“It means a lot. That’s what we practice for. That’s what we were trying to do in these five months off, working for this moment,” said Soares during the trophy presentation that followed the match on court. “Extremely happy. Tough year for everyone. Really glad the work that everyone put into this event to give us the opportunity to get back on the court. To start with a Grand Slam title, I think it’s a very positive way to come back for us.”

Pavic said: “[This gave us] a lot of confidence We did have tough matches. We got through tough moments throughout the week. Like Bruno said, very happy to be here lifting the title, great tournament. Congrats to the guys for the final.”

Pavic and Soares battled past four former US Open champions en route to winning the title. They won 10 of the 12 sets played during their five matches, including their last seven straight sets. Pavic became the first Croatian to win a US Open men’s doubles title since Nikki Pilic in 1970 (with Pierre Barthes).

The winners split $400,000 first-prize money. Koolhof and Mektic will share $240,000.

Around the US Open

The world’s best wheelchair tennis players began play Thursday afternoon in the US Open Wheelchair Competition. It continues through the weekend.

On the men’s side, Japan’s Shingo Kunieda began his quest for a sixth US Open title against France’s Nicolas Pieter, a career Grand Slam winner in wheelchair doubles, and won 6-3, 6-2.

On the women’s side, two-time defending champion Diede De Groot of the Netherlands opposed 2015 US Open champion Jordanne Whitley from Great Britain and won 6-3, 6-4. It was Whiley’s first US Open appearance since she lifted the trophy five years ago.

Thursday’s results

Friday’s order of play

By the numbers

According to the WTA Insider, the ninth-ranked Osaka will rise to at least No. 4 by making the final (drop to No. 5 if the title is won by Williams) and would hit No. 3 if she wins her third major title.

Brady, who entered the US Open ranked 41st, will improve to No. 25 when the WTA Rankings are updated next Monday.