On the day that the Original 9 were honoured and celebrated the 50th anniversary, it was fitting that two compelling encounters graced the women’s semi-finals of the US Open.
Familiar territory for Azarenka and Osaka after epic duels
Two exemplary performances from Victoria Azarenka and Naomi Osaka booked their ticket into the US Open final on Saturday
The shot-making, mental fortitude and athleticism required for such entertainment was staggering.
Victoria Azarenka, rubber stamped her return to the upper echelons of the sport with a highlight-reel 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Serena Williams.
A certain Naomi Osaka, a three-set winner against Vika at Roland-Garros 2019, awaits in the trophy showdown.
Recent Cincinnati champion Azarenka, one match away from the “bubble double,” had lost all 10 previous major encounters against Williams and looked destined for another defeat when 0-4 down in 14 rapid-fire minutes.
Somehow, the rejuvenated Azarenka clawed her way back in a catalogue of pulsating points to book her ticket back into another Grand Slam final.
“She dug me into a big hole and I had to climb my way out. I’m very happy I was able to turnaround, I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”
Azarenka also succumbed to Serena in the 2012 final at Flushing Meadows, having served for the title, but insists a lot has changed since then for the former world No.1.
“I was young, my ego was way too big. So now it's a little smaller and the results are coming,” joked Azarenka. “It feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant. It feels nicer.”
The slingshot rallies were intense, well that’s an understatement, but in contrast Azarenka was once again practically meditating at changeovers.
It’s this renewed mental capacity and tranquillity which has enabled the 31-year-old to navigate through the draw.
“I think it’s the work I’ve been doing, trying to find the balance for a calm mind and exciting body to keep moving. I had to keep moving, to bring my own energy,” explained the philosophical world No.27.
“I started taking more responsibility for what I do and how I'm going to react to situations. That helped me grow. That helped me become a better person that I am today. I think that shows on the tennis court, too.”
Negativity simply isn’t welcome, but Azarenka’s resilience will be tested to the limit in the final against Osaka.
“I’m really excited to play her. Aren't we both looking for a third one (Grand Slam)? It will be super fun,” said the two-time Australian Open champion.
“I’m excited as we didn’t get to play the Cincinnati final (Osaka withdrew injured). She plays incredible and is super powerful. I’m going to have to stay strong, but playing in the final is a great opportunity, a privilege and I’m taking all the fun from that.”
Osaka opened the action on Arthur Ashe Stadium with a scintillating exhibition of first strike tennis facing Jennifer Brady. The 22-year-old equalled Brady’s 35 winners in the 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3 epic.
"Wow,” mouthed Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette in the box after match point, elated as his pupil clinched a second US Open final in three seasons.
Just like Azarenka, 2018 champion Osaka appeared focused and intense, but also with an element of enjoyment weaved in.
“It means a lot for me. I kinda consider New York my second home. I really love the atmosphere, even though sadly there are no people here,” declared No.4 seed Osaka, embracing a similar feel-good perspective to Azarenka.
“Honestly, I just felt like I wanted to come out of quarantine being positive, not really caring if I win or lose, but knowing I put in 100 percent effort.
“I would just say, the closer it gets to the finals, the more I think about - honestly, like no one remembers anyone but the winner. Even if I do happen to, I don't want to say lose but don't achieve my goal in the finals, at least I get a shiny little trophy. At least I can leave with something.”
Osaka revealed she was inspired by flashbacks to her 2019 Australian Open final victory on Thursday, but much like Azarenka, feels a lot has changed.
“I would say I feel like my mindset is much different this time around. I feel like I've learned so much through the ups and downs, not even counting the finals, but just regular tour tournaments,” mused Osaka.
“I would say, mentally I feel stronger. I feel fitter now. It's going to be interesting to see what happens.”
Two very unique talents, with very different tales, both embracing the enjoyment factor, both making the Original 9 proud.