Osaka, Azarenka seek third Grand Slam in US Open final


New York (AFP)

Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka will both be looking to capture a third Grand Slam title when they clash in the final of the behind-closed-doors US Open on Saturday.

For Osaka, the fourth seed, it would be a third tennis major trophy in two years. For Azarenka, a former world number one, it would be a first since 2013.

It's a matchup between one of the game's young stars, going from strength to strength, and a veteran whose career is rejuvenated after several years in the doldrums.

The 22-year-old Osaka, her profile rapidly rising due to a combination of powerful tennis and Black Lives Matter activism, says she's better prepared than when she stunned Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

"I would say I feel like my mindset is much different this time around," said Japan's Osaka, following her three-set semi-final win over American Jennifer Brady.

"I feel like I've learned so much through the ups and downs, not even counting the finals, but just regular tour tournaments.

"I would say mentally I feel stronger. I feel fitter now. It's going to be interesting to see what happens," Osaka added.

Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian heritage, is wearing different masks honoring victims of racial injustice and police brutality throughout the tournament.

The 2019 Australian Open champion has donned face coverings bearing the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile.

She will wear another on Saturday for the Arthur Ashe showdown, which will take place without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I do think it's a very big motivating factor for me just to try to, like, get the names out to as many people as I can," Osaka said.

Azarenka, 31, is brimming with confidence after coming from a set down to stun her old rival Williams and book a third US Open final.

It will be her first appearance in the final of a tennis major since Williams beat her in the last-two of the US Open in 2013.

- 'More fun' -

The Belarusian also suffered a heartbreaking loss to Williams in the 2012 US Open, when she served for the match at 5-3 in the third set only to lose 7-5.

Azarenka's two major titles came at the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013.

She has endured a difficult few years. Injury plagued 2014 and 2015 before her career was further disrupted by a custody battle over her son, born in December 2016.

Azarenka is back up to 27th in the rankings though, and is enjoying a fairytale run at the US Open after claiming last month's Western and Southern Open tune-up event in New York.

If she defeats Osaka then she will become only the fourth women -- after Belgium's Kim Clijsters, Court and fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong -- to win Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era after having children.

Azarenka says she is benefitting from a more Zen outlook on life and revelling in the fact that few commentators expected the unseeded player to mount a challenge.

"Mentally I'm in such a different place. I think seven years ago, after I won the Australian Open... it was kind of expected for me to be in the final.

"I don't think that was the case this year. It feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me."

Osaka and Azarenka have unfinished business after the Japanese pulled out of the Western & Southern final due to a hamstring injury, handing the title to Azarenka.

"She's a very, very powerful player," Azarenka said of Osaka.

"She's a great champion. She's won two already. Aren't we both looking for a third one?"