- Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”
NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka recovered from a horrific first set to beat Victoria Azarenka and win the 2020 US Open women’s title Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. A dazzling first set by Azarenka helped make the numbers on the final stat sheet similar, but the match really was all about the way Osaka slowly gathered her game and ended up winning her second US Open title in three years — and the third major of her career. Here are the five main reasons she won the match 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Osaka didn’t get rattled by slow start
It has been 25 years since the loser of the first set in a US Open women’s singles final came back to win. Osaka may or may not have been aware of that stat, but either way she remained mentally tough after a 1-6 drubbing in the first set. Osaka won just 15 points, made 13 unforced errors and managed to win just four points against the serve of Azarenka, who put 16 of her 17 first serves into play. Osaka was never rattled, not even after she also lost her first service game of the second set. She broke Azarenka back immediately and then hit two aces in a strong hold to level the set, signaling the beginning of a new stage of the match.
Azarenka’s vulnerable serve
Azarenka’s serve is the weakest dimension of her game. She doesn’t have great power (Osaka’s first serve speed of 106 mph was 11-mph faster than Azarenka’s); but, early on in this match, she was hitting the corners with precision, but her efficiency declined as the match progressed. In the critical third set, her first-serve percentage fell to 62% on 21 of 34 serves. That enabled Osaka to take charge in the rallies. Osaka won 17 total return points to Azarenka’s 12 in the final set.
Osaka protected her backhand
Osaka had been prone to misfire her backhand shot under pressure in a few matches, or at least in comparison to her solid, booming forehand. At the start of the match, Azarenka often went to Osaka’s backhand side with excellent results. But as Osaka slowly turned the tables, the efficiency of her backhand improved markedly. She made only three more unforced errors on that wing for the match, 11-8.
Osaka elevated better
At key moments in the third set, Osaka lifted her game just that little bit more. When she finally nosed ahead by a break, 3-1, Azarenka charged back and created two break points. Osaka held fast for 4-1. Azarenka returned the favor in the long next game, surviving four break points to stay in contention at 2-4. She broke Osaka in the next game, but couldn’t hold her off when she served the eighth game. The break gave Osaka an insurmountable 5-3 lead, and she went on to serve out the match.
Osaka’s willingness to gamble paid off
Although Azarenka put 10% more of her first serves into play for the match (75% to 65%), Osaka’s willingness to attack both of Azarenka’s serves was a significant factor. Osaka won 48% of her own second serves, an excellent number against a woman whose serve return is among the best and most reliable in the game. Osaka’s willingness to take the initiative in rallies enabled her to keep Azarenka’s second-serve winning percentage low. She won just nine of the 23 second-serve points after she had been obliged to hit just one second serve in that sizzling first set.
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