By Arnie Leshin
Tennis anyone? Well, despite the coronavirus pandemic restrictions, they’re playing the annual United States Open Tennis Championship at Flushing Meadows’ Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the borough of Queens, and if today’s men’s singles semifinals are as exciting and well played as Thursday’s women’s semis, it will again be without fans in the stands, but great for TV watchers.
But on the hard courts at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the tightly-played semifinals that matched 3rd-seeded Serena Williams with unseeded, former champion and 27th seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, in the closer, and in the opener, it was fourth-seeded Naomi Osaka of Japan against the red-hot 28th seeded Jennifer Brady of the United States.
First it was Osaka, the 2018 Open champion, and Brady going at it for three sets, with Osaka’s serve and forehand taking command in the third set. But in set one, it was a stellar effort by the 25-year-old Brady to seize the set, 6-3, but Osaka evened things by taking the second set, 6-2, and Brady was up 2-0 in set three when Osaka took charge.
She served back-to-back aces to start, and displayed an awesome combination of shots that zoomed past Brady, who had made super shots herself, and it put the 22-year-old Osaka, who was born in the USA, into the Saturday championship. But it was a whale of a match that fans in the stands would have enjoyed.
But it won’t be Osaka, who defeated Williams in the 2018 final, against Williams, who got a taste of her own medicine when she won the opening set at 6-1 and Azarenka did what Williams usually does by taking over and claiming the final two sets, 6-3, 6-3. It was in set three that Williams, trialing 3-0, came down with an ankle injury after stepping backwards for a shot that went past her.
Out came the trainer, who applied the bandages to Williams’ injured ankle, and after about 10 minutes, they resumed and Azarenka maintained her hot hand to gain her first US Open finals since she won it in 2013. She also defeated Williams for the first time after losing nine-straight to her that included an Open final.
“It’s been quite awhile,” said the 31-year-old Azarenka who left the courts when she was married and pregnant, and like Williams, she, too, is a mother. “I’ve worked hard to get back in shape and compete again, so this was especially great to win this one and in the final here again.”
Williams had her usual hard serve, but so did Azarenka. Williams was spraying shots both forehand and backhand, but so was Azarenka, who while Williams was being taped, just sat in the sideline chair, closed her eyes and looked just relaxed and composed. When time was in, she again responded with an array of shots, some dandy volleying at the net, and some dancing around with joy when she realized she was going to win this time.
It was the ninth straight major tournament that Williams didn’t win. She will turn 39 next week and only she has the answer to when she will retire. As for Azarenka, it appears she’s just delighted to be back in stride and playing so well.
Osaka said that Brady is one of the better players she’s played, that she hits hard shots down both lines, serves well, and will be a tough test for anybody.
“But I just love playing here,” Osaka said. “It’s like a second home to me, and I like these courts, and the crowds, so it’s too bad seating is limited because of the virus.”