Not since the indefatigable Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario came from behind to oust Steffi Graf in the 1994 final had a woman prevailed in a US Open final from a set down. It is a tall task to realize that feat in any major final, and it takes not only steadfastness and resilience but also immense poise and professionalism.
That is why Naomi Osaka should be unabashedly proud of her 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 final-round triumph over Victoria Azarenka for her second US Open and third Grand Slam title. The 31-year-old from Belarus came out of the blocks playing sparkling tennis. Having lost to Serena Williams in hard-fought, three-set finals at the US Open in 2012 and 2013, she was determined to make amends this time around and get her hands on the trophy. Azarenka has won 20 of her career total of 21 WTA titles on hard courts, including her back-to-back victories at the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013.
She, too, wanted a third major in her collection very badly. No woman had ever endured a seven year stretch between major title wins without claiming one of the premier crowns, but a revitalized and powerfully driven Azarenka was executing so well off the ground and serving with such sharp efficiency that Osaka could not initially get her teeth into the contest.
In the opening game, Osaka made three unprovoked mistakes off the forehand, double faulted once, and lost her serve. Azarenka followed with an impeccable service game, holding at love without missing a first serve. By the middle of the third game, Osaka had already made six unforced errors while Azarenka had none. Although Osaka held in that game, she was clearly ill at ease and unprepared for the depth, variation, aggression and consistency of Azarenka.
On her way to 3-1, Azarenka produced a couple of winners and refused to miss a first serve. Osaka was discombobulated. She double faulted at 30-30 in the fifth game and then was caught off guard by Azarenka’s return of serve at break point down. Osaka erred off the forehand, pressing to find an opening that wasn’t there. It was 4-1 for Azarenka, and her two break advantage was a sizable cushion.
As Azarenka came out after the changeover to serve in the sixth game, only 18 minutes had elapsed in the match. She was pushed hard for the first time on her delivery but Osaka’s ground game remained highly vulnerable. To 5-1 went an unflagging Azarenka, and remarkably she then broke Osaka for the third time. Osaka had a game point that Osaka erased emphatically with a backhand return winner off a 112 MPH first serve. Underlining her supremacy, Azarenka sealed the set, 6-1, two points later with a backhand-down-the-line winner.
Osaka boosters surely hoped she would make her move at the outset of the second set and find a way to disrupt the astonishing rhythm of Azarenka while cutting down significantly on her own mistakes. But that was plainly not the case.
Azarenka secured the opening game of the second set on serve and then broke Osaka for a 2-0 lead, succeeding as she had in the first set so regularly with a solid return of serve setting up a backhand down the line that was as good as a winner. Azarenka established a 40-30 lead in the third game and was poised to extend her lead to 3-0. She had put 25 of 28 first serves in play. She was giving away nothing whatsoever from the backcourt. She was playing this match almost entirely on her own terms.
But on that important game point for 3-0, she did not get quite enough mustard on her backhand down the line. Osaka answered with an excellent forehand down the line. She soon cut Azarenka’s lead to 2-1, breaking serve for the first time, and released two aces on her way to 2-2.
Nevertheless, Azarenka remained composed and confident, holding for 3-2 at 15 with two aces. That game, however, was only a brief reprieve for Azarenka because Osaka had found her range off the ground and her rhythm on serve. The No. 4 seed poured in four straight first serves and held at love with an ace for 3-3. She broke at 15 for 4-3 after an apprehensive Azarenka commenced that seventh game with a double fault.
Osaka was feeling the ball much more convincingly now. In holding for 5-3 at the cost of only two points, she served an ace for 40-30 and concluded that game with a scorching backhand-down-the-line winner. She had captured three consecutive games and 12 of 15 points in the process.
Both players fully understood the significance of the ninth game of the second set. A service break for Osaka would enable her to start serving in the third and final set, and a hold from Azarenka might have halted her opponent’s unmistakable momentum. In a five deuce, 16 point game. Azarenka had five game points but Osaka was unrelenting. She broke through on her second break point, sealing the set 6-3, going behind Azarenka and connecting for a forehand down the line winner.
It was one set all, and the complexion of the contest had changed dramatically. Osaka was swinging freely and generating more pace. Her serve was clicking. Her confidence was growing. Azarenka, meanwhile, seemed to be mired in self doubt. Osaka held comfortably to start the third set, securing her fifth game in a row.
Azarenka held on for 1-1 but her quiet swagger was gone. Osaka was now hitting her stride. She held at 15 for 2-1 with an ace out wide in the deuce court and broke in the following game. Azarenka double faulted to fall behind 15-40 and Osaka broke at 30 with another thundering and unanswerable backhand down the line. Seeking to consolidate that break in the fifth game, Osaka trailed 0-40 but she calmly collected five points in a row to get the hold for 4-1.
Now matters became more complicated for Osaka. She had four break points for 5-1 in a strenuous five deuce game, but Azarenka obstinately kept herself in the match, closing out that game with an ace down the T. Osaka still led 4-2 and advanced to 40-15, but once more Azarenka refused to buckle. Two dazzling forehand down the line winners in a row took her back to deuce, and a shaken Osaka misfired on a pair of backhands.
Azarenka was now back on serve at 3-4, and she led 30-15 in the eighth game. Osaka realized she had arrived at a dangerous moment. She laced a forehead off a short ball to draw and error from Azarenka for 30-30, released a barrage of backhands down the line before going crosscourt to force her opponent into an error, and then made a percentage return down the middle to coax a forehand mistake from her adversary.
With that crucial sequence of three victorious points in a row, Osaka had created a 5-3 lead for herself. Just as she had done when she closed her semifinal account with Jennifer Brady, Osaka had issues with her toss in the last game of the match as she served it out. But she held at 30 with firm resolve to finish off the 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Having raised her record in major finals to 3-0, Osaka was both gratified and relieved while Azarenka was understandably disappointed. Speaking of her third hard defeat in a US Open final, Azarenka said, “I thought the third time was the charm but I guess I will have to try again. But congratulations to Naomi and congratulations to your team. It’s been an incredible two weeks for you. I am very happy for you and I hope we can meet in some more finals again.”
Osaka replied, “I want to congratulate Vika. I actually don’t want to play you in the finals. I didn’t really enjoy that [today]. That was a really tough match for me. It was really inspiring for me because I used to watch you play here when I was younger so just to have the opportunity to play you was really great. I learned a lot.”
Osaka said later on ESPN, “At the beginning of the year in Australia I had quite a few mental breakdowns on court so I just wanted to stay calm and stay consistent and I think I managed to do that.”
And then some. Osaka is the first female player to be victorious in her first three finals at the Grand Slam events since Jennifer Capriati achieved that feat in 2001 and 2002. She was pushed to three sets in four of her seven matches at the US Open, but was never found wanting. The feeling grows that Naomi Osaka will conclude her career in double digits at the majors. She will turn 23 next month, and the view here is that her best tennis is four to six years ahead of her—and of us.
It will be a treat to watch her explore the boundaries of her considerable potential.