US Open women’s semi-finals preview: Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka closing in on rematch
In spite of there being a number of question marks prior to the tournament, most would have to agree that the USTA have done an excellent job hosting this year’s US Open under difficult circumstances and it has been a great journey so far, full of high quality and high drama. The opening rounds were a little shaky for the women’s draw with the seeds appearing to tumble out like nobody’s business but, now that the dust has settled, we have been left with a stellar line-up for the final four. Let’s take a look.
Jennifer Brady (28) v Naomi Osaka (4)
The tournament’s top seed, Karolina Pliskova, lost in the second round to Caroline Garcia, but Jennifer Brady is a more than worthy substitute. The 25-year-old American is yet to drop a set and has beaten Anna Blinkova 6-3 6-3, Catherine Bellis 6-1 6-2, Caroline Garcia 6-3 6-3, Angelique Kerber 6-1 6-4, and Yulia Putintseva 6-3 6-2.
This impressive run of form is no fluke either as she also won the tune-up event in Lexington, less than a month ago, also without dropping a set. Across her five matches in Lexington she lost an average of only 2.4 games per set, and so far at the US Open she is performing almost as well, losing an average of 2.5 games per set.
Naomi Osaka, however, is a step above anyone that Brady has faced during her run of fine form so far. The Japanese 22-year-old star has not had quite such a smooth ride through to the semi-finals but there is a sense that she is peaking at just the right time. She beat an in-form Shelby Rogers very convincingly, 6-3 6-4, in the quarter-finals, and overcame Anett Kontaveit by the exact same score in round four. Kontaveit had come close to beating Osaka at the Western & Southern Open, just a couple of weeks ago, but the fourth seed really upped her game for the rematch.
Osaka went on to reach the final at the Western & Southern but gave her scheduled opponent, Victoria Azarenka, a walkover victory due to an injury that she did not want to risk aggravating. Her opening match at the US Open, against countrywoman Misaki Doi, suggested that she perhaps still wasn’t one-hundred percent, and there was another scare in round three against Marta Kostyuk, but that all appears to be behind her now as the 2018 champion prepares for her third Grand Slam semi-final appearance.
The world’s highest paid female athlete has been making the headlines for other reasons too. Osaka has come onto court for each of her matches wearing face masks that bear the names of people of colour who have been unjustly killed by police in the United States. On commentary, Annabel Croft suggested that Osaka has begun playing with a purpose, as if not only for herself, but to stay in the tournament so as to continue raising awareness. Indeed, that may give her the edge in what promises to be a hard-fought affair.
The pair have met twice before, splitting the wins, but Brady’s win came on a much smaller stage, 6 years ago, when they were both teenagers. Osaka’s win came more recently, but is perhaps equally invaluable in terms of predicting a winner here, as it came on the Charleston clay back in 2018. Brady is perhaps the in-form player but Osaka is a two-time major champion, a former world no 1, and fighting for a cause that makes her hard to ignore.
Predicted winner: Osaka in 3
Serena Williams (3) v Victoria Azarenka
Who saw this coming a few weeks ago? Victoria Azarenka arrived in New York for the Western & Southern Open with an 0-2 record for the year and blasted her way through a tough draw to pick up her first title since April 2016. She beat Donna Vekic, Caroline Garcia, Alize Cornet and Ons Jabeur all in straight sets before coming back from a set down to beat Johanna Konta in the semi-final. Naomi Osaka provided Azarenka with a walkover victory in the final but there was a sense that the Belarussian’s form over the week meant that she was a worthy winner, in spite of being a heavy underdog against Osaka on paper.
That form has continued at the US Open where the unseeded Azarenka has beaten Barbara Haas 6-1 6-2, Aryna Sabalenka 6-1 6-3, Iga Swiatek 6-4 6-2, Karolina Muchova 5-7 6-1 6-4 and then, most impressively of all, a hugely one-side 6-1 6-0 victory over Elise Mertens in the quarter-finals. She’s into her first Grand Slam semi-final since the 2013 US Open and playing some of her very best tennis.
Serena Williams, meanwhile, is on a highly publicised quest for a record equalling 24th major singles title. Her road to this stage of the tournament has been rocky, having twice had to come from a set down to win, against Sloane Stephens and Tsvetana Pironkova, as well as digging herself out of a fair bit of a trouble against Maria Sakkari, who was also her conqueror at the Western & Southern Open.
This is Serena Williams though, and as she has shown time and again throughout her career, no one can match her mental toughness and her ability to pull out the big shots in the big moments. If, however, she finds herself in a hole against Azarenka, she may find herself with an uphill battle that even she cannot overcome.
That said, the pair’s head-to-head is surprisingly one-sided. Serena leads 18-4 with a 3-0 record at the US Open, including back-to-back finals in 2012 and 2013, although both of those did go the distance. It’s worth considering that these matches were a long time ago, however, and Serena is now 38-years-old (39 at the end of the month) whilst Azarenka is still only 31. Undoubtedly Serena has lost a bit of pace and if Azarenka can get her opponent on the run, which she is certainly capable of doing, then she has a great shot.
But Serena is a woman on a mission. She has been down and out a number of times this year but she refuses to be beaten. She is clearly hungry to get the monkey of ‘24’ off her back and by sheer will-to-win if nothing else, expect her to battle her way into an 11th US Open final.
Predicted winner: Williams in 3
The US Open women’s semi-finals will be played on Thursday 10th September at 19:00 local time (00:00 BST) with Brady v Osaka on first, followed by Williams v Azarenka.
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