Victoria Azarenka and Naomi Osaka will meet in the United States Open final on Saturday in a nearly empty, cavernous stadium in Queens — and what a shame that will be for fans.
On a brilliant night of tennis, Azarenka registered an improbable comeback in a roller coaster of a match against Serena Williams that ended soon after Williams appeared to injure her left foot or ankle early in the third set. Osaka edged Jennifer Brady in an earlier singles semifinal on Thursday night to set up an unlikely showdown that figures to be one of the bright spots in the disjointed, bizarre sports year that 2020 has become.
After a week of shaky play, Williams appeared to have found her form against Azarenka, the rival and fellow mother she has dominated for the past dozen years. Williams was dominant early before Azarenka flipped the match on its head, pushing Williams to a decisive set. Azarenka won 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Down 0-1 and serving at 40-30, Williams stretched to reach for a passing shot, then stayed bent over for more than a minute before limping to her chair to receive medical treatment. Williams returned to the court, bouncing along the baseline as though trying to convince herself that all was well, but she lost her serve and Azarenka took control.
A 24th title to tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles record would have certainly bolstered Williams’s claim as the best tennis player — male or female — of all time. But it has eluded her since she returned in 2018 several months after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia.
Azarenka’s journey to the final appeared even more improbable.
A two-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 once considered the next dominant player in the sport, Azarenka had a child in 2016 and spent the much of the last two years embroiled in a custody fight.
She is unseeded in this tournament. At another event last month in Lexington, Ky., she looked like a shadow of her former self, devoid of the power and creativity that had once made her so special.
Since coming to New York for the Western & Southern Open, which was relocated from near Cincinnati to limit travel, Azarenka has shown every sign of a resurgence at age 31. She won the Western & Southern, and played one of the most dominant matches of her career in the quarterfinal, crushing Elise Mertens of Belgium, the No. 16 seed, 6-1, 6-0.
Azarenka has spent the swing in New York in a rented house on Long Island, where she can spend the days playing with her son, Leo, and where her mother has been cooking dinner each night.
“She has goals, big goals. She wants to win big titles again,” said Azarenka’s coach, Dorian Descloix. “When she’s here, she’s like Victoria the tennis player. When she goes back at home to our house in Long Island, she’s like a mother. So it’s totally different.”
Williams, seeded third in a tournament that is missing six of the top 10 players, broke Azarenka’s serve twice before the match was 10 minutes old. She finished off the first set in 34 minutes.
But Azarenka has never been known for going quietly. She came alive in the second set as Williams struggled with her baseline game, pushing backhands into the net and sprayed forehands long and wide.
Up a break and serving at 4-3, Azarenka outslugged and outlasted Williams on two long rallies, leaving Williams stretching helplessly as she watched winners zip past. A blistering backhand sealed Azarenka’s second break of the set and evened the match.
During the final games, Williams and Azarenka grunted and screamed with each shot and celebrated each point with fist pumps and cries of “come on!”
It was hard not to imagine what this night might have been like in another year, with 23,000 fans packed in, their roars echoing off the closed roof. Instead, fans were not allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The emptiness gave way to something else — the culmination of more than four hours of fearless, tight, solo competition, with a distinctive purity. There was what was happening on the court and nothing else.
And when Azarenka finally finished it off, with one last ace on the outside edge of the line, winning by a fraction of an inch, it was too bad it had to end. Especially for Williams, whose hunt for that 24th major goes on.
“There was no crowd to get the energy from,” Azarenka said. “I had to bring it myself.”