Naomi Osaka vs. Victoria Azarenka was the first marquee contest of this year’s French Open, the first one that felt it should be a semifinal or even a final. It pitted the current No. 1 vs. a former No. 1, and two of the best ball-strikers of this era. The fact that the match was played first, at 11:00 A.M., on the second show court at Roland Garros, was unfortunate. But the two women seemed unfazed by anything other than the competition at hand, and together they put on a three-hour show that deserved top billing.
You know how these much-anticipated matches usually go, right? As often as not, they end up being forgettably routine duds, or showcases for the player who happens to be hot, at the expense of the player who is not. This time, though, the heat flowed back and forth across the net. Osaka is always compared to her idol, Serena Williams, and today the comparison felt more apt than ever; she beat Azarenka in the same way Serena has beaten her so many times before: By taking the Belarusian’s best punches, and then throwing even better ones back.
“I mean, the first set was like, I got rolled,” Osaka said after her 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win. “I made a little bit of a comeback in the end of the first set, but technically, like, she kind of killed me in the first set, and I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive and, like, jump around.”
Azarenka came on court in drill-sergeant mode. Walking quickly, urging herself on intently, she commanded everything in her path, from the rallies to the ball kids to the clay itself. After a couple of her errors, she moved the surface around in front of her with her foot, as if the dirt wasn’t in its proper place.
Yet those errors were few and far between to start. Azarenka was at her precise best through the first set and a half; she was the player on top of the baseline, the one taking the ball farther up in the court, the one dictating the run of play, the one finishing at net. By the time Vika broke serve and then laced a forehand winner to go up 4-2 in the second set, it looked as if there would be no way back for the world No. 1 today, and that her 15-match Grand Slam win streak would soon be snapped.
But that’s the thing about players who win 15 straight matches, at the Slams or anywhere else. They find ways out of jams, and ways to win when you don’t think they’re destined to win. On Thursday, Osaka began to find her way back when she served at 2-4 in the second, and went down break point. Azarenka, unfortunately for her, chose that moment to miss a forehand, and Osaka pounced on the opportunity. She hit two forehand winners to hold serve, and avoid going down a double-break that might have ended the match. When she broke back for 4-4, the momentum had begun to swing. From there, the winners began to flow in the other direction—from Osaka’s strings, instead of Azarenka’s. One of them, a backhand down the line, gave Osaka the second set.
“I think for me I feel like I didn’t dip at all during this match, and she was just playing so well,” Osaka said. “I was just waiting for her to get a little bit tired. I think she did towards the end of the second set and the third set. So that’s when I just tried to really accelerate on how fast I was sort of winning the points.”
The winners came quickly and furiously in the third set from Osaka, as she ran up a 5-1 lead. Like Serena, Osaka has a ground-stroke gear that no other player, even Azarenka, can match. She would finish the day with 52 winners, to 35 for Azarenka.
As the commentator doing the match at Roland Garros said, “It’s taken one of the best to bring out the best in the world No. 1.”
Asked afterward to explain her mindset when she falls behind, Osaka echoed an interesting answer that she has given before: By respecting, and being realistic about, her opponent’s ability, she avoids getting too angry with herself.
“I mean, because they beat a lot of people to get there, I can’t think I’m the only good tennis player in the world,” she said. “It would be kind of, like, I don’t want to say rude, but kind of arrogant to just think, like, everything is on my racquet. I know that there are some matches that it is like that, but, I mean, I’m playing against the best players in the world, so...”
Osaka has respect—but not too much respect. She knows her opponents, whatever their rankings may be, are human, too.
“I feel like there’s a time for everything,” Osaka said, “and for me, whenever I play a match, even if I’m playing bad or good, I always recognize that there’s a chance. And I can always tell when the chances are.”
There’s a time for everything, Osaka believes. Is this already her time at Roland Garros? Judging by how she played and competed today, her chances will come.