US Open 2020: Naomi Osaka beats Victoria Azarenka to win third Major title

Resurgent Azarenka back to No14 after reaching first Major final in seven years

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

It was perhaps inevitable that the 23-time Major champion, Serena Williams, would become the focus of media attention once she hit the North American hard courts after almost six months of Covid-19 closure.

What better place and time for Williams to reach that record 24th? After all, since her 12-month maternity leave in 2017, she had made four Major finals, two of them at the US Open.

And with so many top players choosing to stay in Europe rather than run the gamut of New York lock-down protocols—Nos 1 and 2, Ash Barty and Simona Halep, along with defending champion Bianca Andreescu, were among no fewer than six of the top 10 to bypass the US Open—Williams was the third seed. By the quarter-finals, she was the highest remaining seed as Karolina Pliskova and Sofia Kenin made their exits.

Williams was building up her form nicely, too: Back from a set down against former champion Sloane Stephens, revenge over Maria Sakkari after her Cincinnati loss, and another comeback win over the resurgent returner, Tsvetana Pironkova, to set a semi against Victoria Azarenka.

And here the story shot off in another direction. It would not, after all, be Williams providing the headlines but one of her oldest rivals, a woman she had played more often than anyone but sister Venus. Azarenka had met Williams on 22 previous occasions, winning four hard-court finals. But she had failed to beat her rival in three previous US Open meetings—until now.

The backstory of the woman from Belarus was as compelling as anyone’s. The two-time Australian Open champion and former No1 beat Williams in a three-set thriller in her first Major semi-final since 2013.

Back then, Azarenka looked set to dominate women’s tennis with Williams for years to come. However, a foot injury devastated the next season and more, followed by a loss of confidence, maternity leave, and then a long custody battle with her estranged partner.

Indeed, from her first-round loss at Roland Garros in 2016, she played only one Major until her first-round loss in Paris again in 2018, since when she had won only six Major matches—until now.

The first big tournament following lockdown, Cincinnati-played-in-New-York, launched the second wave of Azarenka. She blasted her way to her first title since the 2016 Miami Open, playing with her familiar aggressive, confident tennis.

Now, with a run of 11 wins on the board, the forthright Azarenka faced Naomi Osaka in a final that many predicted, with a licking of the lips, might otherwise have been a replay of the famous/infamous Osaka/Williams 2018 final.

In that first Major victory, the then-20-year-old Osaka remained admirably cool and controlled in deploying her powerful, big-strike game and in zoning out the drama between Williams and the umpire that concluded with a game deduction.

The Japanese star went on to win in Australia last year, and her big-match attitude helped her to two Premier Mandatories, along with 25 weeks as world No1. But during the 10 straight wins she had put together in back-to-back final runs in New York, her stature has grown for her bold activities against racial injustice and police brutality.

For each match, she has donned a mask emblazoned with the name of an African-American victim of violence. And she had, time and again, been called upon to talk about her actions.

Her last comment, following her semi victory, said it all:

“For me, I feel like I’m just doing what I think I’m emotionally capable to do. I felt like this was right for me at this time. I felt like this is what should be done.”

In truth, the younger, higher-ranked former US Open champion, with almost a decade in hand against Azarenka, was the favourite, though her former two wins over the Belarusian were both on clay. But it was she who had to pull out of the Cincinnati final with a hamstring injury—and she continued to wear a support in New York.

She was immediately caught off guard in the first game, serving very big, but with Azarenka up to the onslaught, returning deep, taking the ball early, and breaking. Osaka was struggling to contain the Belarusian pace and to counter the angled accuracy, and a love hold made it 2-0 in the blink of an eye.

Both were striking the ball big, but Azarenka’s accuracy from corner to corner, and her defence and retrieval, applied relentless pressure. A superb forehand down the line sealed another easy hold. Osaka was on her heels, doubled faulted, broken again.

Azaranka served to make it 5-1, and a cracking backhand winner sealed another break for a 6-1, 26-minute set. She had dropped just four points on serve, and made only three errors.

The same destructive backhand rocketed past Osaka to score a quick break in the second set, too, but Azarenka hit a couple of balls wide to give the Japanese woman a toe-hold, and she took it, a break back. It also gave Osaka a boost, her serve grew bigger, she controlled the rallies from the T, and held with an ace.

The Japanese woman held her next serve to love, with both now playing near flawless tennis. Azarenka’s business face began to show a little tension as she let her stranglehold slip, and she conceded another break, 5-3. This time it was Osaka who pounded out the set with a backhand winner, and instead of the five winners hit in the first set, she had notched up 16 in the second—and had the momentum.

Osaka continued to strike the ball with pace and assurance, now reading the Azarenka angles and changes of direction better, and broke to lead 3-1. The Belarusian worked three break-back points, but Osaka was ruthless with a run of five points, 4-1.

Azarenka looked fatigued, but she battled through an eight-minute hold, and pushed herself through some apparent leg-pain to fire off two bold forehand winners: It earned her a break back.

However she was unable to hold off the attack, was broken again, and Osaka served out a fine victory, 6-3. It had been a contest worthy of an extraordinary US Open, played by two great champions. Osaka will return to No3 in the world and surely No1 beckons the Japanese star again very soon.

But for Azarenka, who little more than two weeks ago was ranked 59, it marks a return to the elite level, a rise to No14, a true renaissance.

Roll on the out-of-time, out-of-joint clay season, capped by a French Open that gets under way in another two weeks’ time. For now, the socially distanced, no hugging, near silent trophy ceremony concluded a tournament that will be remembered for a very long time.

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