After playing five matches in seven days, Victoria Azarenka was ready for one more. It was her first singles final in almost 18 months, and she was looking for her biggest title since 2016.
The 31-year-old had been victorious against several notable opponents on her path to the championship match, but she was particularly excited for what she knew what would be a hard-fought battle against Naomi Osaka.
But before the match was scheduled to begin, Osaka retired due to a left hamstring injury. Azarenka was named the Western & Southern Open champion without having to touch a racket.
“I think it’s unfortunate, because I was actually really looking forward to compete against Naomi,” she said after the trophy ceremony. “It would have been an amazing opportunity to face her level, and she’s been playing really great. I lost to her last time that we played, so I was really looking forward to that.
“And playing the final is always really special, so, you know, I just take it the way it is. I can’t change anything. I just have to accept what it is. I would have loved to have played.”
That was two weeks ago.
On Saturday, Azarenka will get her wish to play Osaka. This time on Arthur Ashe Stadium, while millions around the world watch on television, with a Grand Slam title on the line at the US Open Open (4 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
“I’m as excited as I was last week,” Azarenka said after beating Serena Williams 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals on Thursday. “I’m sure this time we’re going to get to play and it’s going to be a great match. I think it’s going to be an amazing final. I hope it will be. I’ll have fun.
“But she’s a very, very powerful player. She’s a great champion. She’s won two already. Aren’t we both looking for a third one? It will be fun.”
Both players have made the most of their time in New York during the two-tournament bubble. When she arrived in the city, Azarenka hadn’t won a match in over a year and had contemplated retirement on multiple occasions. It has been a challenging few years for the former world No. 1, who won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013.
Following the birth of her son, Leo, in December of 2016, she returned to the tour the following June, but has played an inconsistent schedule since due to a contentious custody battle that has resulted in travel restrictions. She was unable to play in Australia to open the 2020 season, but wanted to give tennis one last try. She spent the tour’s suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic refocusing on the game, and says that’s where she found confidence again.
“Belief comes before [winning the big matches],” she said after her win on Thursday. “Before Cincinnati, before Lexington, it was coming on the tennis court, in practice, not in practice. I didn’t start to exercise my belief when I started to get results. [It] doesn’t work that way. So my belief came from way before, from deep within me, that’s what I want to do, and I’m going to work real hard about it.
“Did I think about the results? I mean, I want to think about results, but I don’t necessarily put that way in a perspective. I was thinking about how can I raise my level? How can I be mentally stable and tough? I’ve always been tough, but I had those moments where I was just not there. I wasn’t in the moment. I found that serenity being in the moment now.”
She has won 11 straight matches and will be back in the top 20 for the first time since 2017. During Thursday’s much-hyped semifinal against longtime foe (and off-court pal) Williams, the unseeded Azarenka lost the opening set 6-1, but dug deep to pull off an improbable comeback and advance to her first major final since 2013. And while many have long expected Williams would be the next mother to win a Slam after four final appearances since returning to competition from childbirth, it is Azarenka who has the chance to become just the fourth mother in the history of the Open era to win a major.
The 22-year-old Osaka admitted to struggling with the weight of her early success, having won the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open, and being discouraged by her subsequent results. She lost in the fourth round in Queens last year, and fell in the round of 32 in Melbourne to begin the season. But she, too, found perspective during the unexpected break.
“I feel like honestly the entire 2019, after I won Australia, I put too much pressure on myself,” she said earlier this week. “I wasn’t enjoying it … I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to take the quarantine to mentally evaluate what I want to do when I come back.’ And for me, when you walk out onto Ashe, there’s a quote from Billie Jean King that says, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ and for me, I feel like it’s very true.”
Osaka didn’t use the time to just improve her game or attitude, she began increasingly using her voice for issues that mattered to her. She went to Minneapolis to protest the death of George Floyd, and wrote an op-ed for Esquire about systematic racism and oppression. That commitment to social justice didn’t stop when the season resumed.
Hours after advancing to the semifinals at the Western & Southern Open, Osaka posted her intent to sit out the match the following day in hopes of sparking a conversation following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Her selfless act pushed the sport to meet the moment, and the tournament announced there would be no matches the next day in hopes of encouraging reflection. She played two days later in the rescheduled match, and arrived to her match in a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Throughout the course of her run at the US Open, the No. 4 seed has worn a different mask for each match, each representing the name of someone who died as the result of racial injustice and police brutality, in hopes of raising global awareness of their stories and plight. Osaka has repeatedly expressed her desire to wear all seven masks, and now she will do just that.
“I do think it’s a very big motivating factor for me just to try to get the names out to as many people as I can,” she said Thursday, after beating American Jennifer Brady in the semifinals. “So I’m not sure if that’s giving me extra power. Definitely I want more people to talk about it.”
There is no shortage of motivation for either player. With both playing their best tennis in recent memory, and each perhaps more energized and invigorated than ever before, Saturday has all the makings of a classic final.
It will be the fourth meeting between the two players, with Osaka holding a 2-1 series edge. Their last meeting, in the second round at the 2019 French Open, went three sets, with Osaka ultimately earning the victory.
Osaka’s coach, Wim Fissette, knows this will be another tough match for her. And he would know. He previously coached Azarenka, so he understands both players, and their styles and strengths, better than most.
“Of course, I know Vika’s game pretty well,” he said. “But I do feel like it’s finals of the US Open. It’s all about controlling the emotions and trying to play the best tennis at the right moment.
“A few key points are going to make the decision tomorrow. That’s how I feel. Maybe an ace at the right moment or a double fault at the wrong moment can decide this match. I feel it’s a very close match with the two players who have been, like, playing the best tennis the past three weeks. Yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be a huge battle out there tomorrow.”
Will Osaka, representing a movement so much bigger than herself, continue to help spread the message with a victory on the sport’s biggest stage? Will Azarenka complete her improbable and inspiring run and return to her spot as one of tennis’ best?
One thing is for certain: Someone will win her third major title on Saturday, and another will be left holding the runner-up trophy. But with both having already achieved so much over the past few weeks — on and off the court — it feels like they both will leave New York as champions.
“The way I see myself now on the tennis court, off the tennis court, is that I don’t necessarily put myself into a point where I’m going to be just this or this result is what matters,” Azarenka said earlier in the week. “Everything is an experience for me. I live in the moment. I enjoy the moment no matter what it is. I take life as it comes.
“It took me a long road to come here with a lot of struggles, a lot of understanding, forcing me to find this route, this path, if you can say that. But I’m here and I’m happy.”