Naomi Osaka outlasted Jennifer Brady by winning a power battle, 7-6(1) 3-6 6-3, to march back into the US Open final after an enthralling contest held under the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night as rain storms deluged New York.
I just felt like I was sticking it out. It felt like we were trading serves. I tried to adjust a little bit on her serve in the third set so maybe that helped. Naomi Osaka
There were no fans in the stands but the noise of the rain on roof was deafening, adding a surreal quality to the semi-final encounter that many thought could go Brady’s way, but didn’t.
“Sometimes I think I have no choice but to play as hard as I can, because my opponent isn’t giving me any looks,” Osaka said in her post-match press conference. “For me, normally if I focus that much, then the match potentially could be over in two, but I felt like it just kept going on.
“Honestly, it was a bit fun because that quality of an opponent… at the final stages of a tournament. Yeah, it was fun.”
Osaka was supposed to play Victoria Azarenka in the recent final of the Western & Southern Open, but she withdrew because of an injured left hamstring, and she has been nursing it throughout the US Open and had it taped on Thursday.
“It means a lot for me. I kind of consider New York my second home,” said Osaka, who was born in Japan and moved to the United States as a child. “I kind of love the atmosphere, even though there’s no people here. I feel like this court kind of suits me well.”
The match was dominated by huge serves from both players, with Osaka serving at up to 120mph and Brady reaching 117mph, plus booming ground-strokes as they pounded the ball once it was in play, too, particularly off their forehand wings.
“I just felt like I was sticking it out. It felt like we were trading serves,” Osaka said. “I tried to adjust a little bit on her serve in the third set so maybe that helped.”
Watched by her rapper boyfriend Cordae, the 2018 US Open champion has hit top form again and just held the edge towards the end of the thrilling 3-set contest.
Osaka is the first person to take a set off Brady this fortnight, who won the Lexington title a few weeks back, but she needed a tiebreak to get the job done in the opening set.
Brady, 25, who had not dropped more than 4 games in a set all tournament, had the only chance to break in the 7th game but missed a return, and that proved to be her Achilles heel in the tiebreak, as Osaka raised her level to claim the first mini-break, winning the longest rally of the set to take a 2-0 lead.
She stayed the more aggressive player as she won the next 5 of 6 points to edge ahead and claim the opening set, 7-6(1).
In the second, both settled back into a server’s battle and hitting powerfully from the baseline.
Again, Brady had a rare opportunity on the Osaka serve, and this time she did not falter, converting to lead 5-3 after winning a marathon 18-shot rally, and confidently serving out the set to take them to a decider.
They combined for 70 winners – 35 apiece – to just 42 unforced errors, each as good as the other, and it took a bit of luck to swing things after an hour, 45 minutes when, at 2-1 in the third, Osaka earned her first break point with a backhand that clipped the net tape and trickled over.
She was able to convert the chance when she hit a deep return of a 110mph serve, and Brady’s backhand in response was called long, although a television replay showed it actually caught a piece of the back of the baseline, but Brady did not challenge the ruling.
Ashe is one of only two courts at the US Open using line judges this year; to reduce the number of people on site, the tournament used electronic line-calling in the other arenas.
Brady, contesting her first Grand Slam semi-final, showed no sign of nerves, but Osaka took advantage of a brief dip in form from her opponent to bring up her first break point of the match and take a 3-1 lead.
“I tried to adjust on her serve in the third set,” Osaka said, “and maybe that made the difference.”
In the high quality battle, the two big-hitters pummelled the ball for 2 hours and 8 minutes under the closed roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The Japanese came onto court wearing a mask bearing the name of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot dead by a police officer in 2016.
Playing for a cause bigger than herself has given Osaka a clear mindset on court, and she played a virtually immaculate opening set.
In the final on Saturday, Osaka will face Victoria Azarenka for the silverware in a meeting between two-time major champions who have both been ranked No 1 in the past and have been by far the two best players since tennis resumed last month after a pandemic-forced hiatus.
Azarenka has won 11 matches in a row, including a defeat of Serena Williams later in the evening, while Osaka’s streak now stands at 10.
Brady is proud of reaching her maiden Grand Slam semi-final and says she left everything out on the court against Osaka.
Seeded 28, she now believes she belongs with the best players in the world.
“I think I’m just proud of my effort, that I treated each match as the same, came in with the same mentality,” the 25-year-old told reporters. “The only goal I had was just to compete on every single point. I felt like that’s what I did.
“I think I handled the situation pretty well. I was obviously pretty nervous, playing here on Arthur Ashe, night match, semi-finals, a match to play for the finals of the U.S. Open,” she added.
“I felt like I went out there and I believed that I could win the match.
“Obviously I didn’t, but I’m pretty happy with myself, with my effort, and my mentality these past couple weeks.”
Brady matched Osaka’s 35 winners but had 8 more unforced errors than her Japanese opponent.
“I felt like we were both serving pretty well. It really was just about making first serves, first ball after that,” said Brady, adding that she would take a break before playing the French Open from 27 September.
“I think it rewarded the more aggressive player, maybe she was the more aggressive player today. She played cleaner at times … it was a pretty high-quality match from both of us.”
The two women put on a show worthy of a 23,000-fan crowd, and worthy of a long ovation when it was over but, of course, there was no-one, just a worldwide television audience.