NEW YORK—Twenty years from now, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka will cross paths, perhaps as Fed Cup captains, perhaps as commentators, perhaps even as inductees of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Hopefully, they will look back at Labor Day 2018, when as 20-year olds, in the round of 16 at the 2018 US Open, they played one another for the first time.
That was wild.
You hit the ball so big.
We had so much to learn.
To be fearless. To be mindful. Joined together? Separate? Is it easier to turn a bold striker into an attentive tactician? Or the opposite? These were the questions that came to mind while watching the first meeting in what could be one of the great rivalries of the next 10 years.
With the same urgency each brings to cracking a tennis ball, these two 20-year-olds had soared up the ladder this year. Osaka began 2018 at No. 68 and is now ranked No. 19, her progress greatly aided by a title run at Indian Wells this spring. Sabalenka started the year at 78 and, off the heels of her first title run last month at New Haven, is ranked No. 20.
Their third-round US Open wins had been quite revealing. Osaka double-bageled Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a skilled player ranked No. 33 in the world. Sabalenka vanquished someone far more accomplished, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 7-5, 6-1. Those weren’t merely wins. They were conquests, emphatic demonstrations of power unleashed. Osaka and Sabalenka had given evidence that the women’s game was headed into an entirely new dimension of velocity, the 2020 edition of the heat-seeking missile.
“For once in my life,” said Osaka, “I actually think that I was the player with more experience, which is very odd for me to say. But I know that she just sort of recently started into, like, the Grand Slams and stuff.”
So it was that a minute past two hours, Osaka had won, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. As anticipated, it was a sporadic match, tinged with displays of baseline firepower, intermittently impressive and horrific serving, youthful sloppiness and also, just perhaps, glimpses of future greatness.
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In the first set, with Sabalenka serving at 2-all, those nagging questions about fear and mindfulness showed up in the form of topics near and dear to many a wise tennis player: footwork and shot selection. On the first point, Sabalenka sloppily fielded a ball hit down the middle to her backhand by feebly driving it into the net. At love-15, faced with a short ball to her forehand, Sabalenka—who has a tremendous inside-out forehand—inexplicably drove it crosscourt. Osaka passed her easily, down the line. At love-30, Sabalenka overhit a forehand approach shot. Down love-40, she struck two superb serves, including an ace, only to toss in a double-fault.
Sabalenka is reminiscent of a young baseball pitcher with a big fastball who just rears back and gives it a heave. The forehand backswing is enormous. The service toss is extremely high. Again, questions: Should the strokes be tamed? Or encouraged? If the youthful insouciance of Pete Sampras, Monica Seles and the Williams sisters taught us anything, it’s that rawness can be an asset.
Though Osaka doesn’t play much differently, even she admitted that against Sabalenka, “I was just trying to weather the storm. If I had chances, try to do something with the ball.”
In winning the first set, 6-3, Osaka had only made seven unforced errors, half as many as Sabalenka.
In a matchup like this, momentum counts for little. These two hardly accrue or surrender points page by page. They are punchers, in pursuit of the knockout, page numbers uncertain, plot line be damned. So it was that Osaka, serving in the second set at 1-1 deuce, committed a pair of unforced errors on her backhand. 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. Second set to Sabalenka, 6-2.
So what would the decider hold? This was Sabalenka’s first US Open main-draw appearance, Osaka’s third (including a painful third-set tiebreaker loss to Madison Keys two years ago). But as the third set got underway, Sabalenka was the one with greater energy, the competitor looking like the match was hers for the taking.
With Osaka serving at 1-1, 15-40, Sabalenka pounced on an 84-M.P.H. second serve, drove her backhand return down the line and followed it in, superbly carving a backhand volley winner. Did you hear that, Martina, a rip-charge and an angle volley? The future is now. In the next game, Sabalenka went up 30-15, two points away from the cushion of a 3-1 lead. Osaka slumped to return.
Sabalenka double-faulted. Osaka broke back for 2-all.
The punches continued to fly. But there was also a feeling in the air that Sabalenka had let a golden opportunity slip by. The best way to play either of these two is to establish enough distance—consolidate a service break—so that the other can’t afford to go for too much. Instead, Osaka kept it close. Storm weathered.
At 4-all, Osaka played one of her best games of the match, holding at love, including a pair of aces from 30-love. At 4-5, Sabalenka nearly handed the match to Osaka. She netted a benign forehand, steered a backhand wide, double-faulted to go down love-40. But Sabalenka fought off all three of those match points and then earned a point for 5-all.
Possibilities danced of a fitting end to this first encounter in the first year of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium: a decisive tiebreaker. Alas, Sabalenka struck a forehand well below the net. At deuce, Sabalenka hit her second serve in the middle of the service box to Osaka’s forehand, a hanging curve of a delivery that Osaka drove forcefully enough to elicit a backhand error. Match point number four. Two hours earlier, Sabalenka had begun the match with an ace. Now, she finished it with every tennis player’s nightmare ending: a double-fault. Osaka had reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Between them, Osaka and Sabalenka had hit 50 winners, committed 74 unforced errors, an unsettling barrage. But maybe it was wiser to heed something Charlie Brown had once said years ago in “Peanuts” strip: Tell your statistics to shut up. Because when you drive the ball with as much repeated force as Osaka and Sabalenka, perhaps the only quantitative indicator that matters is the score. It’s hard to imagine either of these two ever sitting down with a coach, pouring over numbers of past matches or studying YouTube clips. Then again: Should they? Maybe 20 years from now, when they have that conversation, they’ll cue us in on the answer.