US Open 2020: Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka seek third Grand Slam title, look to continue unbeaten run

On court, both Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka have been breathtaking at the US Open. Off the court, both have taken different paths on social issues.

Tanuj Lakhina September 12, 2020 10:16:57 IST
US Open 2020: Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka seek third Grand Slam title, look to continue unbeaten run

Victoria Azarenka will take on Naomi Osaka in the women's final at US Open. AP

Exactly a month ago, Victoria Azarenka went down to Venus Williams at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky. Her serve was inconsistent, groundstrokes not finding their range to take on a Venus who had come in with a new serve and the same power and quality that we have seen recently. It seemed like Azarenka couldn't go on and be a problem at tour events let alone the Grand Slams. It seemed like luck just wasn't going her way either, with tough draws from the get-go.

Four weeks later, it is a different story. She is on a 12 match winning streak, having won the Western & Southern Open, her first title in four years, and is into her first Grand Slam final in seven years at the US Open. On this run, she's taken down the likes of Donna Vekic, Johanna Konta, Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens and Serena Williams. The win over Serena was her first against the American at a Major after 10 straight losses.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Azarenka is enjoying her tennis and the results are going her way too. She's smiling more, bobbing her head to music and goes into meditation mode in the middle of matches. She acknowledged the need of letting her ego subside, in comparison to 2012, and alluded to keeping a neutral mentality.

She is into the final but her native Belarus would consider this to be an afterthought. Mass protests have been the main talking point as people have called for president Aleksandr G. Lukashenko to step down. He claimed a landslide victory on 9 August but it has been widely claimed that the presidential elections were rigged. He's been in power since 1994 and has become a dictatorial figure by removing term limits, cracking down on opposition and suppressing the media.

Sabalenka admitted she "couldn't sleep" during the tournament in Lexington as she feared for her family's safety at home. She wrote on Instagram, “I can’t look at cruelty to people who are defenseless; please stop the violence.”

Azarenka, meanwhile, calls it a "very difficult topic to speak on." She said last month, "That’s breaking my heart to see what’s happening, because not being able to be there and understand the whole situation, it’s really sad.”

“It’s really sad, and it’s really difficult to speak on that. But I just hope that all the violence stops immediately, really does, because it’s really heartbreaking. I can’t even speak without tears in my eyes when I think about it.”

More closer to the US Open, she opted against giving her opinion on the pause of play at the Western & Southern Open. "I want to talk about tennis, and I want to focus on my tennis tomorrow. And then maybe when I'm ready to speak about what's on my mind that it has nothing to do with tennis, I will."

US Open 2020 Naomi Osaka Victoria Azarenka seek third Grand Slam title look to continue unbeaten run

Naomi Osaka wears a mask in honour of Breonna Taylor in her first round. AP

At the heart of that pause? Naomi Osaka, Azarenka's opponent in the final. Just like she was two weeks ago at 'Cincinnati' but that match didn't go ahead owing to a hamstring injury to the Japanese player.

Naomi has been forthcoming and clear on her views on the Black Lives Matter protests. She had decided against playing the semi-final at Western & Southern Open before coming around on convincing by WTA and the USTA.

But her movement hasn't stopped. She's worn names of six different Black Americans who have been victims of police brutality in each round. Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Saturday will be a seventh.

"I do think it's a very big motivating factor for me just to try to, like, get the names out to as many people as I can. So I'm not sure if that's giving me extra power. Definitely I want more people to talk about it," she said after beating Jennifer Brady in the semi-final.

Parents of Arbery and Martin thanked Osaka in video messages earlier in the week. A visibly moved Osaka said on ESPN, "I feel like I'm a vessel, at this point, and in order to spread awareness and, hopefully, it's not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can, you know, help with anything that they need."

"For me, it's a bit surreal. It's extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I'm doing. For me, I feel like what I've doing is nothing. It's a speck of what I could be doing," Osaka said after beating Shelby Rogers. "It was really emotional. ... I'm really grateful, and I'm really humbled."

On the court, like Azarenka, Osaka is on an unbeaten streak since tennis resumed. Her run has seen her beat the likes of Anett Kontaveit (twice), Mertens, Rogers and Brady.

The left leg has been wrapped since the start of the Grand Slam and only improved as matches went on. But Osaka is careful not to overdo in her practice so as to aggravate it. Going by the Brady semi-final, the two-time Grand Slam winner has little to be worried about.

In a contest of two extremely talented players, it might come down to who is mentally stronger at this stage. Both are moving well, both are hitting extremely well and both have momentum and form on their side. Both will be looking to add to their respective tally of two Grand Slam titles.

Recent matches don't provide much to gauge an idea of where this could go. Osaka leads the head-to-head 2-1 having won their most recent meeting at the 2019 French Open. Azarenka's only win over Naomi came at the 2016 Australian.

“Very excited about that (final). I’m as excited as I was last time. 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,” said Azarenka on Thursday.

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