Wow. I’m still buzzing about Thursday’s US Open semi-finals. It’s the first time since the 2017 French Open that both of the women’s semi-finals have gone three sets. Without doubt, in all my years of following tennis, this was my favourite pair of Slam semi-finals. I’m disappointed to have missed them live, but also thankful that streaming and catch-up services are so good now so I was able to watch them back. I’m so excited for the final which will be contested between Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka. Read on for my thoughts on the super semis and a preview of Saturday’s final.
Osaka finds another level, fends off brilliant Brady
Naomi Osaka fended off an admirable charge from first time Slam semi-finalist, Jen Brady to win the first of the semi-finals, 7-6(1) 3-6 6-3. The quality of the match is represented in the numbers as the pair combined for 70 winners to just 42 unforced errors. The first set was a serve dominated affair with just the lone break point saved by Osaka. There was barely anything between the pair with just a few loose errors from Brady in the tiebreak and Osaka coming out on top of the rare extended exchange.
After such a close first set, I expected Osaka to stroll through the second set. Not on your nelly! Brady kept plugging away and made the deserved breakthrough at 4-3 in the second set. Brady served out the set to 15. Both players continued to rise to the occasion in the third set. Osaka, as she did in her third round match against Marta Kostyuk, found another level. The serve was on and she used the one-two punch on the deuce side very effectively. Osaka also did a lot more in return. In the end, it was just one lapse service game from Brady that was the difference. Osaka had a little wobble with the ball toss trying to serve out the match but she regrouped to advance to her third Slam final.
A great, great match from both players. I wondered if Brady would be overrawed by the occasion but she played a terrific match. I wonder if the absence of a crowd actually went in her favour at this tournament? She’s one to watch now at every tournament going forward. Once again, a tested Osaka came through in flying colours. Technically, Osaka is still unbeaten on the resumption.
Azarenka rallies past Serena in another classic
In another thrilling contest to add to the memorable Serena-Vika rivalry, Victoria Azarenka rallied from a set down to overcome a fast-starting, Serena Williams, 1-6 6-3 6-3. Serena came racing out of the blocks and played her best set of the tournament by a country mile. The footwork was sharp, intensity sky high and Serena was bringing it yet again in a Slam semi-final. Azarenka couldn’t get a foothold in the match and was fragile on serve, winning less than half of her service points.
Slowly but surely, Azarenka worked her way into the match and it was all about the serve. She dramatically improved her first serve percentage from 52% in the first set to 79% in the second set. Azarenka was generally more aggressive and gained the crucial break of serve at 3-2 by hitting hard, deep returns down the middle. With her nimble footwork, Azarenka was able to set up an array of glorious backhand winners. One set all.
Serena required a medical time-out early in the third set after seemingly injuring her ankle/achilles. It wasn’t great timing for Serena as Azarenka sealed the early break but the injury didn’t seem to hamper her movement during the third set. Azarenka had the momentum and never let go. This was one of the most impressive mental performances that i’ve witnessed from a player in a long, long time. Serena put a lot of pressure on Azarenka but the Belarusian didn’t buckle. The transformation on serve from the first set was quite remarkable and she consistently landed first serves in the pressure moments. When serving for the match, Azarenka was at 30-30 after a nervy looking double fault and even started chuckling to herself! She followed it up with two huge serves including an ace on match point.
I keep thinking back to Lexington where Azarenka lost her first match to Venus handily, 3-6 2-6. Everyone was writing off Azarenka. Since that loss, Azarenka won her first match in over a year (!) and hasn’t lost again since, mounting an 11 match winning streak. This was truly vintage Vika and then some. Azarenka is back into a Slam final for the first time in seven years. After everything she’s been through, it’s a wonderfully uplifting feel-good story. The beaming smile on her face is just everything 😊 .
Best point 🎾
So much intensity. These two produce the best rallies on tour 😍.
Final preview 🤔
I was so disappointed when we didn’t get the Osaka-Azarenka final in Cincy-New York two weeks ago so am thrilled about this final. In recent years, i’ve noted that players who do well at pre-Slam tournaments rarely seem to translate their form into the Slam. This was obviously a unique Slam though with the pre-Slam event taking place on the same courts with the same conditions. I definitely underestimated when constructing my predictions!
Osaka leads Azarenka, 2-1, in their head-to-head. Their most recent match was at last year’s French Open where Azarenka led by a set and a break before Osaka completed the comeback to win, 4-6 7-5 6-3. Both players are in sensational form. I have been most impressed with Osaka’s groundstrokes which have been rock solid. The only slight area of concern has the been the first serve percentage but she’s managed to up her level in the key moments. Azarenka has continued to grow in confidence and increasingly hug the baseline. The serve has had its moments but like Osaka, it’s got her out of trouble and been there when she most needed it. The return could be a key shot in this final.
I think this has the potential to be a fantastic final and i’m really rooting for them to bring this Slam, one of the most enjoyable of recent memory, to a fitting conclusion. I like both players but in terms of who I want to win, i’d have to say Vika. I honestly won’t be surprised either way because both players have been so impressive. In terms of who I think will win, my instinct is Azarenka.