It has been a thoughtful and mature Osaka that has graced our screens in the US for the past few weeks. From taking a brave stand against racial inequality and social injustice by announcing her intent to not play the semi-final in Cincinnati, to wearing masks with the names of black Americans who have been murdered at the hands of authority, this once quirky girl has matured into a thoughtful woman who knows that her platform transcends a tennis court.
On the court, though, she has scrapped and fought her way through some serious challengers, sometimes pushed the distance, and finding a way through.
It is not unusual for first, even second-time slam winners to feel overwhelmed, and this was certainly the case for Osaka – from winning the US Open in amongst the absolute chaos that reigned on court, to having to leave the court and pull herself together in Australia.
But she has that experience now, and overall she seems a lot more at peace with herself now that she has found a voice and her place in the scheme of things. So a third slam would be water off a duck’s back.
It has been a long road back to this level of competition from Azarenka – from the surprise news of her pregnancy, to the well publicised custody difficulties that severely impacted her ability to even return to a full-time career, it is any wonder that Azarenka is quick to point out that she is not defined by motherhood.
It is also worth noting that coming into the relocated Cincinnati this year, she was winless since that same tournament last year. It is not as though something has just clicked, but there is no substitute for the confidence that match-wins give you.
She kept her head as Serena Williams got off to a quick start in the semi-finals, and then she just kept her nerve, had a swagger about her, and set about dismantling thr Williams serve, and as one of the best returners historically on tour, she showed that she is can match any aggressive counter-puncher.
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We should have seen this final two weeks ago, and really had a feel for where Azarenka’s game is. We can wonder no more. She dispatched no less than four seeds on her way into the final, and she comes from the generation that revered Williams, and yet she could still find a way to beat her.
When it comes to Osaka – she plays a similar game. She has a solid serve similar to Williams and has been known to say that in tight spots she has asked herself ‘what would Serena do’ and then banged down a couple of aces to get herself out of trouble.
Osaka has great speed around the court but has had to work on finishing points at the net, and that is perhaps where Azarenka can utilise her edge. She has an accomplished doubles record, and can use her hands at the net to good advantage – and she will have to be all over that court to stay with Osaka.
Both have the experience, both have two Slams in their back pocket, and for Azarenka it will be her third shot at the big one in the Big Apple. There is no doubt it would be the story of the US Open if Azarenka can get over the finish line, but Osaka has to come in as the favourite, but really only very slightly. In truth this could go either way.
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