The fountain of youth gave fresh water to the WTA circuit in New York. Naomi Osaka reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final by beating Aryna Sabalenka 6-3 2-6 6-4 in a pressure-packed clash of hard-hitting top players. “Two decades ago, Mary Carillo coined the term “big babe tennis” to describe the rise of Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and others.
This matchup is the natural evolution and future of BBT, with two powerful and athletic, 5-foot-10 20-year-olds facing off with the chance to reach a first career quarterfinal at a Slam” Neil Schlecht wrote on USOpen.org after the match.
Osaka, who won the Indian Wells Masters tournament in March, fired nine aces and produced 32 unforced errors, 10 fewer than her Belarussian opponent who, according to her coach Dimitry Tursunov, could define the future of the tour as Serena Williams had done in the past.
For the first time since 1995, a Japanese woman and man, Kei Nishikori, have made the quarterfinals of a major. “Seeing Kei do really well in Wimbledon, that really inspired me. I always thought if I can keep up with him, that would be really cool.
So, yeah, I'm glad I was able to be a part of something like that today”. Making her main draw debut at Flushing Meadows, having fallen in qualifying in 2016 and 2017, Sabalenka recovered from a break down in the final set to defeat Collins in the first round.
She hit 26 winners against the American and then 39 during the second-round win over Zvonareva to reach the third round at a Grand Slam for the first time. The Belarusian notched her sixth Top 10 victory of the season with a three-set upset over No.5 Kvitova to celebrate the 35th win of the season and become the third first-time seed this year to reach the Round of 16 at a Grand Slam (also, No.31 Buzarnescu and No.16 Mertens at Roland Garros).
“Basically I knew she hits really hard, and she has a good serve. She would attack my second serve. That's basically all I thought about. I was just trying to weather the storm. If I had chances, try to do something with the ball.
Other than that, I tried to play as consistent as I can” said Osaka, detailing her essential gameplan in the post-match press conference. Sabalenka, the second-youngest player to reach the Round 16, ranked in the top-5 among the remaining players before the match: she was No.1 in second serve return points won, No.4 in first serve points won and No.5 in break points won.
And she managed to turn things around from the second set. Osaka made just seven unforced errors, half as many as Sabalenka, in the first set, but she missed a couple of easy backhands in the third game of the second set to give her opponent the opening break to 2-1.
“That was enough for Sabalenka to take charge and Osaka to shrivel. Again, this is not the world of Plan B or even, as many rallies demonstrated, of Plan A-minus. The second set to Sabalenka, 6-2” Joel Drucker wrote on Tennis.com after the match.
The match looked done and dusted when Sabalenka pounced on a weak second serve to drill a massive backhand return and followed it at the net, carving an elegant backhand volley winner. She went 30-15 up in the next game, two points away from a 3-1 lead but in the end, she double-faulted to gift Osaka the immediate break back at 2-2.
“For once in my life, I felt like I was the player with more experience, which is very odd for me to say,” said a smiling Osaka after the match. “I feel like there were moments I knew what to do and maybe, because she’s so young, she was a little hesitant.” Osaka, making her third main draw appearance at Flushing Meadows, had never moved beyond the third round before in New York.
Entering 2018 US Open as the ace leader on tour, the Japanese dropped just five games en route to straight-sets first-round victory over No.146 Siegmund. Then she swept aside qualifier Glushko in the second-round in 50 minutes to make the third round of a Grand Slam for the sixth consecutive major: at the time, that was the longest active streak on tour.
Her dominant mood continued as she delivered yet another 50-minute performance in her 6-0, 6-0 sweep of No.33 Sasnovich in the third-round that marked her 50th career hardcourt victory. Osaka turned the tables and became the first Japanese woman to advance to the quarterfinals of a major since the 2004 US Open (Asagoe), then the first Japanese woman to advance to the major semifinal since Date at 1996 Wimbledon.
Already assured to pass USD $2 million in prize money for the season reaching the round-16, played one of their best games to hold to 5-4 in the decider. Serving to stay in the match, Sabalenka committed three unforced errors but managed to save three straight match points from 0-40 down to level at 5-5.
But at 5-6 down, she gave a fourth chance after a forced backhand error and this time surrendered to the last double fault of the match. “I was just thinking I have to fight for every point; even if I break a leg I should try to get to every ball,” Osaka said.
“I felt like I had a lot of chances to break her in the third set, then she would serve these really amazing serves. Like a part of me knew it was coming, but at the same time I was always very unprepared,” Osaka said.
“I’m just glad I was able to win in the end.” Sabalenka remained the only player to take a set from the eventual Us Open champion in seven matches. What happened during and after the final makes the clash against Serena Williams an instant classic, the most iconic season-defining moment.
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