Each time the draw for a Grand Slam releases, one wonders which players seem most likely to make their way to the final. You look at the top seeds and the form players and try to figure out who those two could be.
But as the tournament progresses, as the players settle into their groove in the first week, you get a better understanding of who is truly standing apart. That player, in each half of the draw, who looks a cut above the rest. You then hope and pray that those two players sustain their level to set up a blockbuster final.
With Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka, we have got ourselves exactly that at the 2020 US Open.
This year’s second Major has been both rare and familiar in terms of the women’s singles draw. While the tournament had to go ahead without a number of big players, who chose to not participate due to the coronavirus threat, normal service resumed soon enough as top seeds started to fall by the wayside, just like they have been in Grand Slams over the past few years.
Karolina Pliskova (seeded first), Sofia Kenin (second), Petra Kvitova (sixth), Madison Keys (seventh), Petra Martic (eighth), Johanna Konta (ninth), and Garbine Muguruza (tenth) – were all knocked out before the quarter-finals.
But despite the expected peculiarity, Osaka and Azarenka’s run to the final is hardly a surprise. Both players were close to the top of their game coming into the tournament and they’ve gone from strength to strength over the past two weeks.
At the Western & Southern Open, a tune-up event for the US Open, it was Osaka and Azarenka who fought their way to the final. And while that match couldn’t take place due to a hamstring injury to Osaka, we now have ourselves a showdown between the two strongest players in the world at the moment.
Osaka’s road to the final
R1: Misaka Doi – 6-2, 5-7, 6-2
R2: Camila Giorgi – 6-1, 6-2
R3: Marta Kostyuk – 6-3, 6-7, 6-2
R4: Anett Kontaveit (14) – 6-3, 6-4
QF: Shelby Rogers – 6-3, 6-4
SF: Jennifer Brady – 7-6, 3-6, 6-3
Crowds or no crowds, the US Open seems to bring the best out of Osaka. It was at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2018 where the then 20-year-old announced her arrival by defeating the great Serena Williams to win her first Major title. And she has rediscovered the firepower that helped her break through two years ago.
In the opening round, she dropped a set but put any doubts about her injury to rest by moving efficiently despite her heavily-taped thigh.
She then powered through her next four matches, only losing a tie-break in the third round. In the semi-finals, though, she was presented a stern test by 28th seed Jennifer Brady. The Japanese clinched the first set but her opponent, who hadn’t dropped a single set in the tournament up until that match, showed resistance to bag the second set comfortably.
However, from that point on, Osaka took control of the match by relying greatly on her biggest weapon – her forehand.
It really is a fascinating shot, Osaka’s forehand. The body shape remains the same each time yet she can send the ball in any direction. It seems to be an incredibly difficult shot for her opponents to pick. And then there’s the power involved. With that slight tilt of the head and the rapid swirl of the racquet, she can flatten the ball to get back into a point from any position.
The forehand has served Osaka well so far in the tournament and if it is allowed to dictate play in the final, it’s hard to imagine Azarenka keeping up.
Azarenka’s road to the final
R1: Barbara Haas – 6-1, 6-2
R2: Aryna Sabalenka – 6-1, 6-3
R3: Iga Swiatek – 6-4, 6-2
R4: Karolina Muchova – 5-7, 6-1, 6-4
QF: Elise Mertens – 6-1, 6-0
SF: Serena Williams – 1-6, 6-3, 6-3
She lost her first match since tennis’ restart last month – a straight-sets defeat to Venus Williams in the opening round of Lexington – but Azarenka is on an 11-match winning streak since then, bagging the Western & Southern Open title along the way.
The Belarusian, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and ’13 and also reached the final of the US Open those two years, has had a long journey back to the top of the sport since taking a break for the birth of her son in 2016. And as of now, she is probably playing the best tennis of her life.
After brushing aside her first opponent, Azarenka put on a masterclass in the second round against Aryna Sabalenka. Such was her dominance of the fifth seed that at the end of the match, the commentator was compelled to say: “A most unexpected match… not the victory, but the manner.”
The unseeded 31-year-old, who is guaranteed to enter the top-20 after the US Open, has been firing on all cylinders right through the tournament. Barring a first-set hiccup in the round of 16, she played near flawless tennis to reach the semi-finals, which included a ruthless takedown of 16th seed Elise Mertens.
But the best was yet to come for Azarenka, and it came in some style against third seed Serena Williams. With the 23-time Grand Slam champion up a set and holding the momentum, Azarenka took her game up several notches to turn the match in her favour. It was a remarkable fightback and a testament to her class, fitness, and undying spirit.
It’s hard to find any chink in Azarenka’s armour at the moment. She is playing an aggressive game and looks a well-oiled machine. She’s comfortable coming to the net and has been hitting winners even from the center of the baseline, without any real angle to work with. In the two sets she has lost so far, her opponents were forced to play low percentages and hit outrageous winners.
Add to all of this, the calmness about her on court. She was seen meditating while sitting with folded legs during a changeover and has looked self-assured for the most part. Unless she suffers a dramatic loss of form, Azarenka will back herself to get the job done in New York.
Osaka vs Azarenka head-to-head
|2019||French Open||R64||Clay||Osaka||4-6 7-5 6-3|
|2018||Rome Masters||R64||Clay||Osaka||6-0 6-3|
|2016||Australian Open||R32||Hard||Azarenka||6-1 6-1|
One of the deciding factors of the final on Saturday could be Osaka’s serve. Her first-serve percentage for the tournament is 56.3, as compared to 62.8 for the rest of the field. It isn’t a drastically low number but against someone like Azarenka, who isn’t afraid to step in and be aggressive while returning serves, it could hurt her chances.
Either way, we are in for a dream final between two players who are full of confidence, close to their peak, and ready to win a third Grand Slam title.