Naomi Osaka was down 1-6, 0-2, 30-40 down in the US Open final against Victoria Azarenka. It was a fight-or-flight moment. But flight was not an option in her third Grand Slam final.
None of her weapons had worked so far – her fast serve had been neutralised, her powerful forehand had gone missing and the attacking game was throwing up errors at an alarming rate. She was trying not to let the frustration show, regrouping quickly at changeovers, attempting to get the first serve in. Other than the one time she threw her racquet down, the 22-year-old kept things on the surface calm.
But for the first half an hour, it was all one-way traffic as Azarenka dominated from the first game, clinched the first set and then broke Osaka again in the first game of the second. The unseeded player missed all but one first serve and had only three unforced errors to Osaka’s sloppy 13.
Now a set and a break down, Osaka was left with no choice but to go for all-out attack. It was a risk given her unforced errors count and the impeccable serving of Azarenka so far and it also the only way through.
But even in attack, Osaka had to stay calm – an oxymoron only the champion players are capable of. The youngster has the tendency to let her emotions get the better of her on the court, under pressure, and is honest about her feelings and mental turmoil. But to win, she had to find the right balance of control and aggression. She did it so extraordinarily well, she ended with her third Grand Slam final after dropping the first set 1-6 – only the second time that happened in the US Open women’s final.
Both the 22-year-old Japanese and 31-year-old Belarusian were former world No 1s and two-time Grand Slam champions. Both know what it takes to be in the final and win big matches. It was to be a tough contest, as both came of three-set semi-finals. In fact, Azarenka herself had dropped the first set 1-6 a couple of days ago in the semi-final against Serena Williams. So it was not game over by any margin.
Yet, at down a game point in the third game of the second set, it appeared that the bogged-down Osaka of 2019 had returned. A top player without consistency who lost matches she was favoured to win.
But the fourth seed managed to flick the switch and once she found her rhythm, as many watching expected, she was back in the battle. She started getting her serves in and took control in rallies to build the point. Azarenka, who has absorbed all of Osaka’s power from the baseline, was wrong-footed once the power became consistent and the points longer.
When Osaka got her first break point, the tone of the match shifted. She converted the first chance as Azarenka sent a forehand long and it meant that the first set was forgotten. Once Osaka improved her hitting and found the lines regularly, the pressure seemed to turn on Azarenka, who had looked effortless while dominating from the baseline.
The big difference was a small tweak – the 22-year-old cleaned up the basics. She had no aces and two double faults in the first game, she had five aces and no double faults in the second. She reduced the unforced errors to five in the second and in the process Azarenka’s count increased to 10. The first two breaks in the second set came off groundstroke errors from Azarenka, something she had no trouble with in the first.
It was the marathon ninth game of the second set that was the highlight of the final. The younger player had reeled off three straight games but if Azarenka had held, Osaka would have had to serve out the set and start second in the decider.
The game went to deuce five times, the 31-year-old had five chances to close out the game but Osaka didn’t relent, setting up and converting her second set point with a cracking forehand winner.
Back on equal footing in the match, the third set was no less dramatic. When the 2018 champion took the early lead at 3-1, all she had to do was maintain the consistency of her serve. Easier said than done, it appeared, when she was 0-40 down in the very next game only to dig herself out with swift and accurate serving.
But there was one final twist left in the game. In the fifth game of the decider, Osaka had four break points to all but seal the match. Azarenaka, in a gritty, hustling game, saved all of them to hold. The game almost changed the match as Osaka was broken in the very next game to put the third back on serve.
Poised delicately, this game would be the final test of nerves in what had become a battle of wills. In that moment of reckoning – just like the 2012 and 2013 final against Serena – it was Azarenka’s game that buckled as her opponent stayed on the gas. Serving for the championship, Osaka stayed focused and clinched it after a sensational rally when Azarenka’s return found the net.
Her answer to what changed after the firsts set was simple: “I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour... and stop having a really bad attitude.”
Attitude, as they say, is everything isn’t it? And there was something fascinating about the way Osaka levelled up – quite like the concept in her favourite Pokemon world – an effortless but very evident rise in-game. It was the mark of a rare champion.
In an ill-conceived thought during the first set, former American tennis player Pam Shriver tweeted asking if Osaka’s early stumble was residual trauma from the 2018 US Open final. In her first Grand Slam final, a 20-year-old Osaka overcame Serena Williams in a final wrought with emotion and controversy as the American clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos over. Lifting her first Major after a win over her tennis idol, she was booed by the crowd and in tears.
To think that affected her in a near-empty Arthur Ashe stadium would have been far-fetched. This was the same player who won a hard-fought decider against another two-time Grand Slam champion in Petra Kvitova at the 2019 Australian Open to become the first player since Serena to win consecutive Majors.
This is the same player who pulled out of the semi-finals of Western & Southern Open in solidarity with the US Sports boycott over racial injustice. The same player who has worn a facemask with the names of African-American victims of police brutality, making seven with the aim of reaching the final.
Billie Jean King’s popular phrase – ‘Pressure is a privilege’ – is emblazoned prominently at the US Open and was embodied by the now two-time champion. The manner in which she absorbed the pressure and converted that into controlled aggression against a fighter like Azarenka and the confident way she carried her activism throughout was a privilege to watch.