For most part of Serena Williams’s three-minute medical timeout to treat her left achilles in the third set, Victoria Azarenka sat on her chair with her eyes closed, unmoved and unflustered about the situation at the Arthur Ashe Stadium until she got back to her end for some shadow hitting. It was a crucial moment in the context of the semi-final – at deuce with Williams serving at 0-1 to avoid a break – where Azarenka could’ve easily lost her momentum and concentration due to the pause.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s my goal. That’s my goal; it’s just nothing,” Azarenka said in a press conference when asked about closing her eyes during the changeover.
The Belarusian promptly broke the American’s serve to go 2-0 up and finish a comeback few would have expected after Williams tore her apart in the first set. But the gritty Azarenka picked up the pieces to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 and enter the US Open women’s singles final where she will face fourth seed Naomi Osaka.
The result meant the 38-year-old Williams’s elusive wait for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title – and a first since 2017 – will continue, while it ended the 31-year-old Azarenka’s wait for a first Grand Slam final appearance since the 2013 US Open.
When Williams pocketed the first set in just 34 minutes in a last-four battle between the two mothers, her pursuit of No. 24 appeared a step closer. Before this match, Williams was 18-4 in her record against Azarenka, with the latter having never beaten the former in their 10 previous clashes in a major. But Azarenka kept at it, like she has been doing while dealing with her personal issues over the last few years.
The former world No. 1 and 2012 and 2013 Australian Open champion was at the peak of her prowess when injuries and a long-drawn custody battle over her son Leo, who was born in 2016, derailed her tennis career. It forced her to withdraw from Grand Slams – including the 2017 US Open, among others – and took her focus away from the game. But even in all that turmoil, Azarenka had found a way to keep herself grounded.
“I had this very interesting discussion with one of the people … about neutral mentality. That was kind of an interesting point. When s**t happens to you, you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s be positive, let’s be positive’. It’s sometimes impossible to be positive. So being neutral, just not going into negativity is very useful,” Azarenka said after the semi-final win.
That mindset played a crucial role on the court after that first set. Even as Serena, by her own admission, “took a little too much off the gas pedal”, Azarenka upped her gear: from a 52 per cent first serve success in the first set, it went above 75 in the second and third; she pounced on Williams’s second serves, not allowing her to win a single point off it in the second set; she notched up 12 winners while committing just one unforced error in the second set, taking that aggressive yet clean game into the third to wrap up the match despite Williams putting up a better fight.
Osaka’s seven masks goal fulfilled
Azarenka will need every ounce of that aggression and calm mindset on Saturday, for Osaka is coming off a morale-boosting victory herself, beating American Jennifer Brady 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 in a high-quality semi-final that was a spectacle of solid serves and powerful strokes. Osaka and Azarenka had also reached the final of the Western & Southern Open, the tune-up tournament to the US Open, but it was a no-show as Osaka pulled out due to a hamstring injury. Clearly, as the last couple of weeks have shown, that injury has not bothered the 2018 champion’s run in this edition.
It will also ensure Osaka will finish the work she set out to do at the start of the tournament – wear seven masks, each with the name of a different Black person who has died in police action in the US, to showcase the cause of racial injustice and take a stand against police brutality. On Thursday, the mask, her sixth, was to remember Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man shot by a police officer during a traffic check in Minnesota.
This eventful US Open has a final it deserves: it’s a battle between a 22-year-old star chasing her second US Open title and fulfilling her commitment of honouring victims of racism, and a 31-year-old mother out to experience the feeling of being a Grand Slam champion after seven years of personal battles to be back on the court again.