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 injured her left Achilles’ tendon 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 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Osaka, seeded fourth, topped Brady, the 28th seed, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3 in the first semifinal, a tight battle of big serves and nearly as big forehands.
Down 0-1 in the third set 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. Williams said the injury did not affect her play later in the match.
“I started really strong and then she just kept fighting,” said Williams, who committed to being in Paris for the French Open at the end of the month. “Maybe I took a little too much off the gas pedal at some point.”
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 U.S. Open 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 spraying 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!”
“There was no crowd to get the energy from,” Azarenka said. “I had to bring it myself.”
As rain pounded on the roof of Ashe Stadium, Osaka and Brady did not play a game of finesse, subtlety or spins. It was power tennis from start to finish.
Brady struggled with Osaka’s serve as Osaka aimed for the corners of the service boxes with darts that kept Brady guessing. Brady matched up well with Osaka when she could manage a return, but that was easier said than done.
“Sometimes I think I have no choice but to play as hard as I can, because my opponent isn’t giving me any looks,” Osaka said. “For me, normally if I focus that much, then the match potentially could be over in two. But I felt like it just kept going on.”
Osaka is a prodigy who became one of the biggest stars in tennis after beating Williams two years ago in the 2018 U.S. Open final. Brady turned pro relatively late after spending two years at U.C.L.A., and was making her debut in a Grand Slam semifinal.
Osaka has played with a medical bandage throughout the tournament around her left leg to protect a sore hamstring. She has also been outspoken throughout the summer about ending systemic racism and police violence against Black people, especially as tennis has returned from the pandemic.
Two weeks ago, after seeing the Milwaukee Bucks of the N.B.A. and teams in several professional sports leagues decide to sit out their scheduled games, Osaka announced that she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, a warm-up to the U.S. Open. Tournament officials then postponed all play for a day, allowing Osaka to continue. She advanced to the final but then conceded the match because of lingering hamstring soreness, resulting in Azarenka winning in a walkover.
During the U.S. Open, Osaka has worn Black Lives Matter T-shirts and masks with the names of Black people who have been killed, some by police. She said she began the U.S. Open with seven different masks, one for each match, including the final. Osaka’s breakout title in 2018 is mostly remembered for Serena Williams’s argument with an umpire after she was given a code violation for receiving coaching during the match, then a point penalty for slamming her racket to the concrete. Osaka beat Williams that night in straight sets — and the fans were clearly on Williams’s side.
It was hard not to imagine what this night might have been like in another year, with 23,000 fans packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium, 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 so close that Williams had challenged the call, it was too bad it had to end. Especially for Williams, whose hunt for that 24th major goes on.