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Naomi Osaka Endures a Storm to Ascend Tennis Again

The 22-year-old seized control of her voice and her game at the U.S. Open, outlasting Victoria Azarenka in a final—and tournament—unlike any other

2020 US Open - Day 13 Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It was, as the commentators noted, almost perfectly symmetrical. Victoria Azarenka had come back, in her U.S. Open semifinal against Serena Williams on Thursday, from a 1-6 drubbing in the first set to run away with the rest of the match, 6-3, 6-3. Now, facing Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s final, she raced to a 6-1 win in the first, only to be dominated by Osaka in the second and third. In the end, she lost 6-1, 3-6, 3-6. Statheads sometimes argue that momentum isn’t real, but any fan knows that tennis is a game of streaks, not only within matches but within tournaments, within seasons, and within careers. There is no other sport in which everything can seem to be for you and then seem to turn against you quite so suddenly or pitilessly. Tennis players during a hard-fought match sometimes seem like kites flying in a storm, waiting to see which of them the current will carry into the few fleeting pockets of clear air.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the women’s final at this year’s U.S. Open did not feel like just one match, but several matches, during which Osaka and Azarenka took turns looking very, very safe and very, very threatened. In the first set, it was Osaka whom the winds seemed to be battering. Vika won the first point of the match, and then broke Naomi to take the first game. Azarenka couldn’t put a foot wrong, couldn’t hit a first serve out of bounds—through the middle of the second, when everything changed, she was landing over 90 percent of her first serves—and couldn’t miss so much as a guess. Osaka, by contrast, looked listless, overmatched, and forlorn. People talk about the loneliness of tennis players, but it’s only when they’re losing that they look lonely. Tennis players who are winning look like they have invisible armies on their side.

By the time Osaka threw her racket to the ground in frustration after falling into a 15-40 hole with Azarenka serving for a 5-1 lead in the first, she’d racked up 11 unforced errors. Azarenka was constructing points masterfully, moving Osaka around the court and preying on her backhand, the one semi-weak part of her game.

Because of the diffident thoughtfulness with which she answers reporters’ questions, the 22-year-old Osaka is sometimes described as “innocent” or unsure of herself, but until she faced Azarenka, she’d presented a forceful image of purpose from the beginning of this tournament. The week before the U.S. Open began, Osaka had followed the Milwaukee Bucks’ wildcat strike in the NBA playoffs by announcing that she was sitting out her next match at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati to protest racial injustice. In New York, she came to every match wearing a mask on which the name of a Black victim of police brutality was printed. She was representing a vital cause, she was back at the tournament where she’d won her first major in 2018, and on court, she looked comfortably in control. She played three three-set matches en route to the final, but she won the first set in each of them: she hadn’t had to come from behind.

Now, though? She looked like a checkerboard set up in front of some chess-playing supercomputer. Azarenka, calm and methodical, seemed to have solved her game. Osaka had no answers. You could see it on her face, wide-eyed as she waited for a serve. Destiny had chosen, and it hadn’t chosen her. But this wasn’t football, where destiny doesn’t exist, or soccer, where destiny is fairly sure about what it wants. This was tennis, where destiny is seemingly omnipotent, but also prone to changing its mind constantly and generally just doing whatever the hell it wants.

Osaka weathered the early pressure. She made small adjustments, moving in to the middle of the court sooner and figuring out the range on Azarenka’s backhand. The moment everything changed came early in the second set. Vika had broken Naomi’s first service game to go up 2-0; she’d won eight of the first nine games, and it appeared we were just playing out the string before Azarenka lifted her third major trophy and her first in seven years. But with Azarenka serving to go up a decisive 3-0, Osaka clawed her way to a break point. A quick exchange and Azarenka missed a shot long: a tiny mistake, but it meant the set was back on serve. It meant Osaka had a fighting chance.

And because this was tennis, when everything changed, it changed utterly. Suddenly it was Osaka moving with a bounce in her step. Suddenly it was Azarenka looking darkly into her racket strings and muttering between points. In the eerie quiet of the crowd-less Arthur Ashe Stadium, the total shift of power in the match felt even more surreal, because it happened in silence, without crowd noise to help make sense of it. To the players on the court, the match probably felt like a furious exchange of calculated microadjustments, in which Osaka simply found the better formula. On TV, it looked like destiny chucking its empty brandy snifter into the fireplace and shouting “just kidding!”

Azarenka fell apart. Osaka became invincible. More of Vika’s serves started dying in the net. Naomi’s shots went deeper, faster, at more extreme angles. As Serena had done in that mirror-image semifinal, Vika grew tired. Everything that had been going her way now went against her, and in about the time it took you to read this paragraph, the match, which had seemed like a foregone conclusion in her favor, seemed like a foregone conclusion going the other way.

But tennis is about runs within careers, as well as within tournaments and matches. If you’d watched more than a few minutes of the U.S. Open before the final, you knew that Vika had not played in a major final in more than seven years. She was a former world no. 1, and just about the only player who could hit with Serena during Serena’s all-conquering peak in the early-mid 2010s, but her career had derailed after that, largely due to a nightmare child-custody battle that meant she couldn’t leave California for long stretches, even to play in tournaments. Her rank dipped, for a while, below 200—she’s back into the top 30 now, but she still came to Queens as an unseeded player—and her career took on a tragic quality. She had been so good, and still had so much promise, and she lost it all before we’d even glimpsed the end of her prime.

Osaka, too, has had ups and downs, though the downs hadn’t been so dramatic. After winning the U.S. Open in 2018 in a final that’s still remembered mostly for the controversy over the coaching penalty against Serena Williams, she won the Australian Open, her very next major. But then, she’s said, she started to feel the pressure. Tennis stopped being fun. Her results got erratic. She was still young, but she was also one of the biggest stars on the women’s tour and the clear favorite to succeed Serena as the game’s marquee player. And she was losing early in majors, looking unfocused and out of sorts. She lost her no. 1 ranking, which at one time had seemed like it might be hers for years. Was it too early to worry that she had gone a little off track?

But Saturday’s match was about symmetry, remember? And the wonderful thing about the second half of the third set was that after more than an hour during which only one player at a time had seemed chosen by the universe, now, for a few minutes, they both did. Azarenka fell behind 1-4, but then fought through a grueling hold, one of those deuce-ad-deuce slugfests that feels like an arm-wrestling match, to come within two games of evening the match. She broke Osaka in the next game: 3-4. Azarenka, nine years her competitor’s senior, stayed on her feet during the next changeover. Both players looked alive and unyielding. And for those few minutes, everything they’d been through, the long shape of their brilliant careers, seemed to come completely into focus. The stakes of the match heightened, because both players were truly competitive for the first time all night, but they also receded, because there was more than just the win to play for. There was also being there when people thought maybe you weren’t coming back. There was reminding the world of how thoroughly you deserved to be where you were.

The quick changes within the match gave Osaka her second U.S. Open title and firmly re-established her at the top of the sport. The slow changes before and during the tournament brought Azarenka back from the brink and re-established her as a star. “I actually don’t want to play you in more finals,” Osaka said to Azarenka after the match. “I didn’t enjoy that.” But watching these two wonderful players push each other to the brink and back, it was hard not to hope that tennis would give us the symmetry of many more matches between them.