12 September 2020 00:30
Victoria Azarenka is convinced her seven-year hiatus from grand slam finals has given her a fresh perspective on life as an elite sportswoman as she prepares to face rising star Naomi Osaka for the US Open title at Flushing Meadows on Saturday night. Seven years ago this month Azarenka was preparing to take on Serena Williams for the same crown while Osaka, nine years the Belarusian's junior, was beginning to build her own odyssey as a professional tennis player by playing pre-qualifying tournaments in Quebec and Tokyo. While Osaka has surged to prominence in the seven years since, culminating in winning back-to-back grand slam titles in 2018 and 2019, the once-dominant Azarenka endured injuries and a lengthy custody battle which curtailed a series of attempts to make a comeback following maternity leave in 2017. Now 31, Azarenka's first grand slam win over Serena Williams in Thursday night's semi-final seemed like a seminal moment in her comeback process, and one which she hopes can lead to her claiming what would, as for Osaka, be her third major title, and her first since the 2013 Australian Open. Azarenka said: "When you are coming up from nothing and you become the number one player in the world, sometimes you can start to think that you're invincible and you're better than anybody, and it's not true, and your ego gets damaged.
"Instead of getting the ego damage, I tried to remove that and learn from my mistakes, and realising that being a tennis player doesn't make you better or worse than anybody else. Naomi Osaka is targeting her third grand slam title (Seth Wenig/AP) That's what I'm most proud of." Azarenka and the 22-year-old Osaka had been due to face each other for a fourth time in the final of the Western & Southern Open at the same Flushing Meadows venue two weeks ago, only for Osaka to withdraw from the match citing a left hamstring injury. The hard-hitting Osaka, now officially rated as the highest-earning sports woman in the world, has made good on comments she made in the wake of her first meeting with Azarenka, a 6-1 6-1 thrashing at the 2016 Australian Open, after which she vowed: "I'm a bit glad she beat me like this because I have so much more to learn." Victoria Azarenka denied Serena Williams a shot at a 24th grand slam crown (Frank Franklin/AP) "[It was about] maturing, realising that being a tennis player doesn't make you better or worse than anybody else," added Azarenka, who is 31. No-one can deny that Azarenka and Osaka are the two form players of the moment. Not only are they contesting Saturday's final, but they were also due to play the final of the Western & Southern Open a fortnight ago, until Osaka withdrew out of concern for the left hamstring she had tweaked the day before.
Naomi Osaka turned professional in the same month Azarenka last reached a grand slam final (Tim Goode/PA) Osaka turned professional in the same month that Azarenka last reached a grand slam final, at the 2013 US Open. Osaka has lost three sets, in a first-round struggle against Misaki Doi, the third round against Marta Kostyuk, and in her semi-final battle against Brady. Naomi Osaka's big serve helped her through her semi-final (Frank Franklin/AP) The statistics from their relatively similar semi-finals emphasise Osaka's reliance on her big serve, and Azarenka's preference to beat her opponents from the baseline. Osaka won 87 per cent of her first serve point against Brady, as opposed to Azarenka's 67 per cent against Williams. Victoria Azarenka was victorious against Serena Williams in the semifinals of US Open 2020.
When Williams took a time-out during the final set, Azarenka was so intent on maintaining focus that she didn't flinch when a fly walked across her face. Azarenka said that ability to "bring the intensity up" allowed her to climb back into the match after Williams' 4-0 start in the first set. That pressure wasn't lost on Victoria Azarenka as she mounted an epic comeback against Serena Williams during their US Open quarterfinal matchup on Thursday. The Belarusian veteran said she resolved to "bring the intensity up" after Williams jumped to an early 4-0 lead in the first set. Williams took a medical time-out one game into the set after tweaking her left Achilles tendon. Azarenka staged an epic comeback against Serena Williams, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 to advance to her first Grand Slam finals in seven years. Azarenka exploded out of the gates to secure the second set six games to three, then took over in the final third. She has another tough battle ahead though — against world No. 4 Naomi Osaka in the US Open final on Saturday. The pair have met three times before, with the 22-year-old superstar besting Azarenka head-to-head two matches to one.