How to watch: From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on ESPN; and streaming on the ESPN app.
On Saturday, Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka will meet in the women’s singles final of the United States Open. They were supposed to have to met each other in the final of the Western & Southern Open in preparation for the U.S. Open, but Osaka pulled out to rest a hamstring injury before the Grand Slam tournament.
On Thursday night, each needed three sets to beat an American opponent in the semifinals: Osaka edged out the 28th seed, Jennifer Brady, and Azarenka came back to defeat Serena Williams. With each player trying to secure her third Grand Slam title and playing near the top of her potential, there is much to anticipate.
Azarenka, playing in her first Grand Slam final in seven years, has had some struggles in her return to the WTA Tour after taking a hiatus in 2016 for the birth of her son. In fact, before her current run of 10 wins, she had not won a professional match in a year. Not only has her baseline game reached its previous heights, but Azarenka seems to have found a new source of mental strength.
In her semifinal match against Williams, she lost the first set quickly as Williams pummeled her with powerful baseline shots. In her post-match news conference, she painted a comprehensive picture of the mind-set that had allowed her to turn it around. “I needed to step up with my aggressivity, play a little smarter, play with a little bit more width of the court and bring the intensity up,” she said.
When asked about an earlier comment on her ego, she spoke at length about how limiting her ego had helped her get through tougher matches.
The difference, she said, was that “instead of getting the ego damaged, I tried to remove that and learn from my mistakes.” She added that she had realized that being a tennis player “doesn’t make you better or worse than anybody else, that you’re still human, and all you can do is try to be the best version of yourself and keep improving.”
Osaka’s path to this final has been similar. She is on a 10-match winning streak, excluding her withdrawal from the Western & Southern Open final, but she struggled earlier in the U.S. Open while managing her hamstring injury. The technical aspects of Osaka’s game have been unimpeachable for some time, but problems with mental strength and consistency have occasionally plagued her.
In her victory over Brady on Thursday evening, Osaka hit 35 winners compared with only 17 unforced errors in a match filled with baseline rallies. She came to net only five times over the course of two hours. The steady focus, holding up against an unrelenting onslaught from Brady, was a clear indication that Osaka would not be limited going into today’s match.
Osaka and Azarenka have met three times before. Although Osaka has won twice, both of those victories came on clay, a slower surface that would give her the advantage. Azarenka won their only meeting on hardcourts, at the Australian Open in 2016, but that was before Osaka elevated her game to the level of a Grand Slam champion.
Expect a match dominated by lateral movement and big hitting from these baseline players. As both players jockey for position on the court, it will be important for them not to hit to the center. Cast in a similar mold, each will know that the angled shots from the wings of her opponent can be a losing situation. But if they play too conservatively, each player will risk giving the other prime position to score points. With both women playing exquisite tennis, expect both to have the confidence to go for their best shots.