The match that we all awaited two weeks ago has finally arrived. Here are some things that are the same from that non-final: the city, the tennis center, the fact that the final is between Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka.
Striking similarities right? Well, there's a couple of big differences: the stage (court) and the stakes. Two weeks ago, Osaka pulled out of the Western and Southern Open final with a hamstring issue giving Azarenka her biggest title since her return to tennis.
A third major awaits either Osaka or Azarenka as the two most in-form players "in the bubble" take to Arthur Ashe Stadium for a shot at the US Open title.
Osaka's Road To The Final
Despite the hamstring injury, the fourth-seeded Japanese player was pegged as one of the favorites to lift the title. Fellow countrywoman Misaki Doi took a set off her, and the two-time major champion returned in her second match with tape on hamstring again.
Osaka said that without the tape against Doi that she didn't play well with it off so she swapped back to having it and business was quickly taken care of against Camila Giorgi. Teenager Marta Kostyuk pushed the 2018 champion to a deciding set, but once again she proved too much in the end.
In another Western and Southern Open rematch, the 22-year-old took out Anett Kontaveit in straight sets this time around. Her head-to-head against Shelby Rogers read 0-3, but two of those were matches were on clay and all of them came before Osaka was winning big titles. The four seed swept Rogers aside and next came American Jennifer Brady.
Brady was another in-form player heading into the US Open. Barring the early exit, the former UCLA Bruin won the title in Lexington. In a power vs power showdown, it was Osaka who won out in the end in the third set.
Azarenka's Road To The Final
Despite the title in "Cincy" Azarenka was unseeded with the draw taking place the Saturday of the final. The Belarusian quickly dispatched Barbara Haas then crushed fellow countrywoman Aryna Sabalenka. The former US Open finalist had not dropped a game entering the second week after defeating Iga Swiatek, but that run ended against Karolina Muchova who took the opening set in the fourth round.
The Czech fought a spirited match, but Azarenka overwhelmed her in the final two sets. Speaking of overwhelmed, that's what Elise Mertens was against the Belarusian. By no means did the Belgian play poorly, but Azarenka delivered probably one of the best matches of her career in this quarterfinal.
Against Serena Williams, it was a rough start for the 31-year-old who dropped the opener 1-6. She turned it around, however, winning the final two sets to reach her first Grand Slam final in seven years; her last major final was at the 2013 US Open.
Head-to-head is in favor of Osaka 2-1 with Azarenka's lone win coming at the 2016 Australian Open when the Japanese superstar was only a teenager. The 22-year-old has won their last two meetings, both of them on clay. They last met at the 2019 French Open where Osaka won in three.
Like Azarenka's last match, this is going to be a power duel. Osaka has the weapons especially on offense to trouble the Belarusian, but Azarenka packs her own punch. She is able to play with controlled aggression and uses her game for both offense and defense.
Azarenka's movement and defense are going to be key in this matchup given she highly excels in this category. Osaka is a capable defender and mover but moving forward leaves plenty to be desired compared to Azarenka, who is also a highly-rated doubles player.
If long rallies take place, look for the Belarusian to try and move her Japanese counterpart side to side to set up some lower-risk plays into the open court. If Osaka gets lulled into these long, drawn-out battles, she'll have to pick and choose her spots when pulling the trigger.
Look for the Osaka forehand against the Azarenka backhand as the go-to rally in this matchup with neither player wanting to get into a battle of the same groundstroke as their opponent. If it comes down to serves, Osaka's shown more consistency with her serve in her young career as Azarenka is prone to double-fault in tense situations.
Another key battle we'll also see often is the Osaka serve against the Azarenka return. The former two-time Australian Open champion is one of the elite returners in women's tennis and can use it to neutralize the serve of the 2018 US Open champion. The ability to neutralize serve means a more even point once the return gets back in play or even seeing the Belarusian make Osaka force the issue off of that ball, becoming the defender.
The 22-year-old is fresh off of Grand Slam titles in the last couple of years, and that will play a factor in this. Recent spells playing for big titles will help Osaka get over the line in this one but do not expect Azarenka to make life easy in this one.
Prediction: Osaka in three sets