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Naomi Osaka fights back to sink Victoria Azarenka and regain US Open

Naomi Osaka flirted with ignominy before quelling the spirited challenge of Victoria Azarenka to win her second US Open, and the third slam of her young career, at the end of an extraordinary fortnight at locked-down Flushing Meadows.

She won 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, only the fourth women’s final to go the distance in 25 years – and the first in an Arthur Ashe Stadium holding a scattered audience of fellow professionals, friends, coaches and officials – although it might all have been over before the lights started popping on Broadway.

Osaka said: “It was a really tough match, but inspiring, as I used to watch Vika when I was young. I thought it would be very embarrassing to lose in under an hour, so I had to stop having a bad attitude. And the point of [her seven face masks] was to make people start talking.”

Azarenka told the winner: “It’s been an incredible two weeks for you, I hope we can meet in some more finals. It was a long road getting here, but this was fun.”

Azarenka, who declared beforehand she was intent on enjoying the experience whatever the result, had reason to smile after six minutes, breaking and holding with chilling calm.

Much has been made of the parallel narratives of the finalists, Osaka bringing her racial awareness to a peak on Saturday evening with her seventh face mask, this one in honour of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead in Ohio six years ago while sitting in a park with a toy gun, and Azarenka riding back to prominence at 32, the proudest of mothers, and one of nine in the draw at the start of the fortnight.

But, noble rhetoric and heartwarming backstories aside, tennis is their job and, when Azarenka broke again to lead 4-1, forcing an overcooked forehand from Osaka, she clearly was doing hers very well. Against Serena Williams in the semi-finals, Azarenka suffered a similarly quick onslaught, losing the first set 6-1 before regrouping to win with tennis resonant of the quality she brought to the court in claiming her two majors.

Osaka plays a double-handed backhand on her way to winning in three sets.
Osaka plays a double-handed backhand on her way to winning in three sets. Photograph: Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports

Osaka’s grand slam successes are more recent and her weapons more intuitive, perhaps – as her coach, Wim Fissette, said beforehand. He had also coached Azarenka, of course, and reckoned her game to be more programmed. As the contest unfolded, that judgment seemed to hold up, although it was Azarenka’s rock-solid serve that gave her a winning platform, with a stunning 94% landing in the first set.

Azarenka, moving inside the court at every opportunity to unleash her trademark backhand down the line, continued to punish Osaka, who was searching for variety to shore up her flat-out power. The backhand, predictably enough, found empty space and the first set had flown by in 27 minutes.

Naomi Osaka wearing a mask commemorating Tamir Rice
Naomi Osaka wore a mask commemorating Tamir Rice, shot by police in 2014 aged 12 while playing in an Ohio park with a toy gun. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Osaka had won every opening set of her tournament and had been broken just five times in six matches, but now had to catch up against an opponent playing with freedom and certainty. Azarenka broke her for the fourth time to go 2-0 in the second. A rout looked likely.

If Azarenka played the best match of her comeback to beat Williams, she was hitting those heights and surpassing them now. It was a revelation. Hardly anything missed, from serve to ground strokes.

A heavy Osaka forehand forced deuce in the third game, and a forehand earned her a first break point. When Azarenka hit long, Osaka’s relief was palpable, but she had much work to do. Not since Arantxa Sánchez Vicario beat Steffi Graf, the defending champion, in 1994 had any woman come back from a set down to win the US Open. It was the only set the Spaniard lost in the whole tournament – and that, too, was 6-1.

Victoria Azarenka chases down a return.
Victoria Azarenka chases down a return. Photograph: Jason Szenes/EPA

It took Osaka 40 minutes to hit her first ace and she started hitting more fluently to make a fight of what was hurtling towards a major embarrassment. If she could take it into a third, she could maybe put the mayhem behind her, but she was behind in the serving cycle, so there was no room for slippage.

The first sign of doubt on the other side of the net arrived when Azarenka handed Osaka three break points in the seventh game – so often a pivotal moment in a set – and pulled her final backhand wide to give the 2018 champion a lead for the first time.

Osaka’s poise returned in a rush, her racket now a rapier rather than a liability. She hit her 37th ace of the fortnight, followed by a searing backhand, and Azarenka, having looked a nailed-on winner not long before, needed to hold to keep the second set alive.

Osaka’s power was at full-bore now, though, and after an hour of uncertainty, and two break points in the best game of the match, she slid a winner down the line to set up the perfect end to a match, the one-set shootout.

If there had been a crowd, they surely would have been evenly divided in sentiment – which, of course, is not supposed to exist in professional sport. For all their goodwill, the combatants went at fiercely in the final frame.

Having nearly drowned in the first set, Osaka was now riding a fierce wave, although Azarenka fought tigerishly to stop a run of five games at 1-1 in the third.

There was a growing sense, however, that this was Osaka’s title to lose, a suspicion strengthened when Azarenka hit her second double fault on her way to going 3-1 down. She earned and wasted three break points on the Osaka serve and her cause looked doomed.

She did her best to extend the drama, holding and then breaking for 3-4, but Osaka, exhausted and straining for focus so close to the prize, broke again and served for the title. Azarenka saved one championship point but dumped a backhand for the second and a night of high drama was done after an hour and 53 minutes.

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