In the first instalment of a rivalry that seems certain to feature in Grand Slam finals over the next decade, Japan’s world #19 Naomi Osaka takes on the woman ranked just one spot below her, Aryna Sabalenka. Neither has yet celebrated their 21st birthday, Sabalenka only left her teens four months ago, but both have big games and bigger ambitions. Both are also looking to reach their first Grand Slam quarterfinal. But will it be Osaka or Sabalenka who takes their place in the last eight?
As mentioned above, this will be the first meeting between Osaka and Sabalenka on Tour. In terms of experience it is fairly even, although Osaka, the elder of the two by eight months, does have a slight edge. This is her second-time in the fourth round at a Major after also reaching this stage at the Australian Open earlier this year. She also won the title in Indian Wells in March. Sabalenka’s best results have come more recently, with a title in Connecticut and a semifinal run in Ohio.
Path to the fourth round
Osaka’s US Open campaign began with a first-round victory over Germany’s Laura Siegemund, who she dismissed 6-3 6-2 to set up a clash with Israel’s Julia Glushko in the round of 64. It proved to be another dominant victory for the Japanese as she hammered Glushko 6-2 6-0. Awaiting her in the third round was Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who has had some great wins this year but had a day to forget against Osaka, who won the match without losing a game.
Sabalenka, who arrived in New York virtually straight after winning her first title in New Haven, opened her tournament with a 6-0 4-6 6-4 victory over the USA’s Danielle Collins. That win sent her into the second round for the first time in her career at the US Open, where she faced former finalist Vera Zvonareva who she beat 6-3 7-6. She then scored a stunning upset win over Petra Kvitova 7-5 6-1 to bring the Czech’s miserable year at the Slams to an end.
How do they match up?
Both Osaka and Sabalenka are tremendously powerful and are well-capable of simply hitting their opponents off the court. Indeed, that is exactly what Osaka, who has won 18 games in a row and lost just seven in the whole tournament so far, the lowest of any player by some distance, has done. Winners have been flowing off her racquet, with 50 so far. She has also been playing well behind her first serve, winning at least 75% of the points when she has landed it in every match.
But none of her previous three opponents boast anything like the power of Sabalenka. The Belarusian has already struck 86 winners, which included hammering 21 past Kvitova at the cost of just 15 unforced errors. Those are hugely impressive numbers against a player of Kvitova’s quality. With both players so naturally aggressive, getting the first strike in will be crucial. Whoever is able to quickly seize control of the most points seems almost certain to emerge the victor.
This match is not a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object. More like unstoppable force crashes headlong into unstoppable force. And watching that collision promises much. Sabalenka is playing the best tennis of her life and has won 12 of her last 13 matches, including the last eight in a row. Osaka was untouchable in the first week. But what may count in Osaka’s favour is her greater energy reserves. In such a tight-match, that could be crucial. Osaka in three.