As Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka meet in the United States Open final on Saturday, they share a common thread through Osaka’s current coach, Wim Fissette.
Fissette, 40, has coached Osaka since the beginning of this year. In 2016, he worked with Azarenka as she won three tour events before ending her season because she was pregnant. He coached her again last season through the U.S. Open, then began working with Osaka during the off-season.
Both players are chasing their third Grand Slam singles title.
Fissette said he has been impressed by Azarenka’s confidence and renewed movement during the U.S. Open.
“I’m impressed but I’m not surprised,” Fissette said in an interview. “I know how good she is, that’s why I wanted to go back working with her in ’19, because I know the potential she has and the mind-set she could have. But this is the best Vika I’ve seen.”
He was on Azarenka’s side when she played Osaka in the second round of the French Open last year, a match Osaka won in three sets.
“Vika was kind of dominating her and was a set and break up,” Fissette said, adding: “She was very close to winning that match.” But Azarenka wasn’t as confident then as she is now, he said.
“She was not brave enough to play her best tennis when she needed it,” he said.
Osaka held on for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory in that match — their most recent that was settled with actual play.
Azarenka and Osaka were scheduled to meet in the final of the Western & Southern Open, the tournament that preceded the U.S. Open at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But Osaka retired before the match because of a left hamstring injury, yielding the title to Azarenka.
Osaka, the fourth seed, has been managing that injury throughout this run, playing with her left leg wrapped and using an atypical routine of skipping practices on her days off.
“My mind-set is much different this time around,” Osaka said after winning her semifinal against the 28th-seeded Jennifer Brady to reach the final. “I feel like I’ve learned so much through the ups and downs, not even counting the finals, but just regular tour tournaments. I would say mentally I feel stronger. I feel fitter now. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.”
To sell Osaka on taking breaks during her off days, Fissette said he talked with her about using a similar strategy while coaching Kim Clijsters to the 2009 U.S. Open title.
“And then you get into a routine and you don’t want to change it — that’s how we did it this time,” Fissette said.
Osaka has also made demonstrations against systemic racism a big part of her presence during this tournament by wearing masks bearing the names of Black people who have been killed, either by police or others under circumstances that have prompted protests around the United States. She has seven masks, one for each match needed to win to capture the U.S. Open title.
“It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t enough for the amount of names,” Osaka said after her first-round win. “So hopefully I’ll get to the finals so you can see all of them.”
Fissette said the masks have been “a great motivation” for Osaka. “It’s for sure something that gives her extra energy,” he said. “It’s not that she needed that, but still it always helps.”
Osaka amplified her voice on social issues significantly during the Western & Southern Open, when she joined players in the N.B.A., W.N.B.A., Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer last month who did not play games in protest of racial injustice by saying she would not play in her semifinal. The tournament was delayed a day in hopes Osaka would play, and Osaka agreed.
Fissette said that circumstance created “the biggest pressure on her that I’ve seen.”
“She won the match, it was a great performance from her mentally,” he added. “But on the other hand, you also know that if you’re under huge pressure mentally, the chances of getting injured are pretty high, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Azarenka, who is unseeded here and last won a Grand Slam title at the 2013 Australian Open, said her biggest change from then to now has been her ego.
She said after beating Serena Williams in the semifinal that the biggest difference between herself now and seven years ago is in her ego.
“When you’re coming up from kind of nothing, then you become a No. 1 player in the world, sometimes you can start to think you’re invincible and that you’re better than everybody, and it’s not true,” Azarenka said. “So the ego starts to grow. It’s very hurtful when it gets damaged.”
Azarenka reached the final with an impressive comeback over Williams, after being dominated in the first set and knowing that she was previously winless against Williams at Grand Slam tournaments.
“Instead of getting the ego damaged, I tried to remove that and learn from my mistakes of that ego, and realizing, maturing, 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,” Azarenka said.
On Saturday, both Osaka and Azarenka will see their mettle tested again, by one another and themselves, with a title and a $3 million top prize on the line (the runner-up gets paid $1.5 million).
“It’s all about controlling the emotions and trying to play the best tennis at the right moment,” Fissette said. “A few key points are going to make the decision.”