September 12, 2020
Naomi Osaka lay flat on her back and took it all in. US Open champion for a second time.
A third Grand Slam title. Still just 22 years old.
Osaka always wins her big finals. But she was almost blown away before she knew what was happening.
Instead she found the inner strength to become the first player since 1994 to lose the first set and yet win the final.
The match was far more extraordinary than the 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 scoreline could ever tell us.
Victoria Azarenka made a lot of friends with her amazing heart and desire. For a while it was perfection.
Osaka admitted: ‘I don’t really want to play you in more finals, I didn’t really enjoy that, it was a really tough match for me.’
Osaka has the world at her feet now. Already the highest-paid female athlete on the planet.
Can she now come and win Wimbledon 2021?
She will return to London so much stronger mentally than when we last saw her at the All England Club.
She isn’t keen on grass. But if she could withstand the storm that both Jennifer Brady and Victoria Azarenka threw at her in New York, then surely Osaka can adapt to anything now.
From the very first game, Azarenka tore up the script in this US Open final and made it magical.
Osaka tried to fire the big guns and ran into a brick wall of brilliant returning.
It seemed to scramble the favourite’s brain. For the entire opening set and a little longer, she didn’t recover.
We waited for Vika’s level to drop in that first set but it didn’t. She broke at will. She was on fire.
Naomi didn’t seem to know what had hit her. She made 13 unforced errors in the opening set alone. Azarenka made just three.
At times it looked as though the underdog simply couldn’t miss.
Osaka was being rushed all over the court. Her balance and accuracy had deserted her. She swished wildly and the ball flew long or wide.
The 31-year-old Belarusian was playing like she had never been away. She was in the zone. She could do no wrong.
This is a mother who has reinvented her outlook on life. The ego that had driven her when she was at the very top has been dismissed.
The new Azarenka is mentally free of previous baggage. Her tennis flows so beautifully that she almost managed a huge upset.
The one-way traffic continued at the start of the second set. Vika was quickly 2-0 up.
We wondered whether the final would be over almost before it had begun.
But for all Azarenka’s personal improvements, she isn’t perfect. Did she see the end in sight and temporarily lose focus?
Osaka broke back. It was the first sign of the tide turning.
Naomi had found her rhythm. She became relentless. She held her own serve and broke again.
Some of the raw aggression Osaka had displayed against Jennifer Brady had returned.
Suddenly it was Azarenka’s tennis starting to show signs of strain. A double fault here. An unforced error there.
Osaka was soon 4-3 up. Vika tried to stay composed and still played some brutal shots. But she coudn’t quite break back.
Azarenka saved a first set point at 3-5. She tried to weather the storm and summon that sparkling form once more.
Yet Osaka couldn’t be suppressed once she was allowed into the fight. She took the second set with another stinging forehand.
The 22-year-old Japanese superstar took the first game of the decider emphatically too.
Then Azarenka dug deep and hit back with a roar and some well-directed power.
Who could combine fitness, composure and craft under the mounting pressure?
We knew we were watching an intriguing final. Women’s tennis never disappoints.
That’s what will make the final Saturday of Wimbledon 2021 so special.
Two female gladiators giving their all. Power and drama, just like we had when Simona Halep downed the great Serena Williams last year.
Back in New York, the epic continued and Azarenka saved one break point but not a second. Osaka was hitting the lines with effortless precision.
Now it was the younger woman’s turn to stand her ground and send her opponent running in all directions.
But strange things happen when you see the finishing line too early.
Osaka tightened, produced a series of unforced errors and gave Vika three opportunities to break back. All were squandered in the chaos of battle.
At 4-1 to Osaka, we were treated to one of the best games of the match. Azarenka knew that if she lost it, she would be finished.
Naomi tried to close in for the kill. With all her warrior instincts, Vika resisted and won a marathon to stay in the fight.
Osaka had two points to go 5-2 then stuttered once more. Azarenka sensed doubt in her opponent and broke brilliantly.
We were back on serve in a mesmerising final set. Not for long, though.
Azarenka was visibly tiring. Osaka relaxed in the face of the comeback and pulled out her best tennis.
A stunning forehand, a beautiful wide serve. Vika had little left but she chased down one match point with typical determination.
She couldn’t quite clear the net with a desperate shot that signalled the end of a fantastic final point and a wonderful match.
No wonder Naomi just lay there. None of us could quite believe what we had just witnessed.