Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka to face off in final, Novak Djokovic survives Bautista Agut
NEW YORK - Naomi Osaka reached her first final of the year with a tight 6-2, 7-6 (7-5) win over Elise Mertens at the Western & Southern Open in New York on Friday.
The Japanese-Haitian star will square off against fellow tennis former world number one Victoria Azarenka, who made it into her biggest final since March 2016 with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 success over British number eight seed Johanna Konta.
Novak Djokovic overcame recurring neck pain and a relentless Roberto Bautista Agut 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) to reach his seventh final at the tournament. The Serb will take on Milos Raonic for a chance of lifting the trophy on Saturday.
Osaka had initially planned on boycotting the semi-finals, joining the wave of protests from athletes across the United States calling for social justice in the wake of yet another police shooting of a black individual.
The tournament organizers, WTA, ATP, and US Tennis Association all banded together following Osaka's decision and issued a joint statement announcing tournament play would be paused for Thursday. Osaka in turn opted to participate in the rescheduled semi-finals that had been postponed to Friday.
"For me, it's been a little bit stressful. I couldn't really sleep last night so I'm really glad I was able to play at a pretty good level," said Osaka after the match.
"I'm really glad I didn't mentally collapse. I was down a break in the second and I got really tight in the tiebreak too so I'm really glad I didn't just dip."
Osaka walked on court wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and was soon up a double-break and serving for the opening set at 5-1. A sublime drop shot from Mertens got her one of the breaks back but it was not enough to stop a locked-in Osaka from taking the set in 39 minutes.
The number four seed started the second set in a hurry, surging ahead 2-0. But this time, Mertens struck right back, breaking the Osaka serve twice during a four-game winning run for the Belgian number 14 seed.
The momentum swung again as Osaka levelled the set and she saved a whopping eight break points in a marathon ninth game to hold for 5-4. Those missed opportunities did not shake Mertens, who held serve to stay alive in the contest.
Mertens rushed the net to save a match point in game 11 as the set fittingly went to a tiebreak. A superb return from Osaka earned her a second and she found her serve when she needed it to close out the match and reach her first Western & Southern Open final.
Raonic wrote BLM (Black Lives Matter) on the camera lens on court after he reached his biggest final since 2016 with a convincing 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 dismissal of Greek number four seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Canadian former world number three secured the 30th top-10 victory of his career and is into his fourth Masters 1000 final.
Ranked only number 30 in the world due to a series of injuries that have hampered him over the past several seasons, Raonic fired 28 winners, including 12 aces against an in-form Tsitsipas, who entered their semi-final having won 13 of his last 14 matches on tour.
Djokovic staved off a Bautista Agut comeback in their three-hour showdown to extend his undefeated record this year to 22-0. Djokovic led 5-2 in the decider and served for the match at 5-3 but got broken by the Spanish number eight seed. Bautista Agut took four games in a row but failed to serve for the match himself at 6-5 and was swept in the deciding tiebreak.
"Very strange match I must say. I don't know how I won it to be honest, he was the better player. I just didn't feel good on the court at all, in any aspect, of my game and the body but somehow I managed to pull this one through," said Djokovic.
Over on Court 10, Konta drew first blood, taking down the Azarenka serve on her way to a 4-2 advantage. The 29-year-old Brit needed eight set points before closing out the opener. Konta had not dropped serve all week but Azarenka finally snapped that streak on her way to clinching the second set and was untroubled in the decider.
Azarenka, a two-time major champion, has had a difficult few years dealing with personal problems that limited her playing schedule at times. The Belarusian admits she considered retirement multiple times, including earlier this season.
"In January, I didn't know if I was going to play at all. So end of January, I decided, 'You know what? I might try, last time, and see what happens'," said the 31-year-old.