New faces at the U.S.Open are old business. A couple come around each year and try to etch their first lines in the book of tennis history. Who could forget Venus Williams’s first appearance in 1997, beads clanging while heads turned to watch her run to the finals, where she lost to Martina Hingis, the It Girl of the era. This year Aryan Sabalenka was the It Girl. Seeded No. 26 in her first appearance, her power, returns and mental strength preceded her arrival at The Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
Then she ran into Naomi Osaka on Monday, which was the Labor Day holiday in the United States. Osaka was playing in her first fourth round in New York at 20, the same age as Sabalenka. The opportunity for her to dominate, plus the hype swirling around the match, were palpable.
Sabalenka had taken out Danielle Collins in the opening round; then the resurgent 2010 Open runner-up, Vera Zvonareva; and, finally, Petra Kvitova, which gave Sabalenka her sixth top-10 victory of the season. Similarly, Osaka had dropped only seven games the first week. She spent under seven hours on court. Obviously she was the fresher of the two, but that didn’t matter. All pros know that. Forget the past, they say in unison; today’s match is the only one that counts.
“Who’s going to handle the occasion better,” Chanda Rubin asked with a touch of prescience, as she began calling the match for ESPN.
Their first meeting was staged inside the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, the site of top-seeded Simona Halep’s demise on day one of the tournament. Osaka, seeded No. 20, edged toward a loss and a similar disappointment as Monday’s match unfolded over three sets.
Initially, Osaka’s mood was bright. She was focused and determined. Then her mood darkened as Sabalenka’s game revved up. Yet Osaka weathered the Sabalenka storm, an achievement realized when she won 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, advancing to her first quarterfinal at the Open, also her first quarterfinal at any major.
“And even if I break a leg I have to get to balls,” Osaka told ESPN on court, when asked how she pulled off the win.
The last point was donated by Sabalenka, who double faulted for the eighth time. She tossed her racquet to the side before shaking hands with Naomi at the net. Her loss broke an eight-match winning streak, one of those earning her a first WTA career title at the Connecticut Open. This loss also came on the heels of playing 13 matches over three weeks, leading up to this last major of the year.
Osaka’s reputation as an offensive player has been well documented. She arrived at the Open at the top of the aces-served list with 179. Monday, though, she showed the defensive skills that helped balance and expand her game while setting a tone of deeper competition. She served in a smarter way. She was quicker off the mark. She pressured Sabalenka and forced errors, 13 total by the ninth game of the first set. Sabalenka could not unleash her forceful returns or set up winners, which she hunts for like a tiger, a head of which is tattooed on her left forearm.
“Osaka’s serving has made it very difficult for Sabalenka to excel in her returns,” Rubin said.
Osaka broke at love to win the first set and ran off the first game of the second at love. At 1-1 in the second, she then faced her first break point after the longest rally of the match. That point soothed Sabalenka’s rhythm and infused her with confidence, which was simmering right below the surface. She went up 2-1.
Osaka’s mood darkened, her first-serve percentage fell, her ground shots shortened, and she resoundingly lost the second set. Sabalenka roared so loudly when she closed the second set, it was as if she had won the match.
An exchange of breaks started the third set, but Osaka put her foot down. She served a 113 mile-per-hour ace to begin to take control. Her fist pump signaled a return of a brighter mood, like a new moon rising.
Sabalenka wasn’t finished, though. She went down 0-40 at *2-3 but held with five straight points, cementing a reputation of mental strength needed in critical moments. But when she went down 0-40, at *4-5, the energy wasn’t there for another comeback, although she did have the game advantage for a New York minute. Osaka’s frustration could have led her down a negative path when Sabalenka saved three match points, but it instead fueled her next two shots, enabling her to fight the way fans had never witnessed. The fourth match point was the charm.
Before she got to the net, the tears appeared on Osaka’s face. Perseverance had paid off. Relief was her reward, a well-earned emotion and honor on Labor Day, a day that will be etched into her memory.