Andy Schooler is backing Victoria Azarenka to complete a fairytale US Open by beating favourite Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s final.
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Naomi Osaka v Victoria Azarenka (2100 BST)
Both finalists produced top-class displays in Thursday’s semi-finals, matches which were widely regarded at some of the best seen in the game in recent years.
While Azarenka garnered the headlines for her defeat of record-chasing Serena Williams, Osaka was arguably the more impressive, fending off the powerful assault of Jennifer Brady.
She hit 35 winners to 17 unforced errors – a very strong statistic – and lost serve only once.
Indeed her serve has been firing throughout the tournament – she’s held 93% of games on her own delivery.
That makes Azarenka’s figure of 78% look poor (it isn’t) but interestingly the Belarusian has broken serve on 10 more occasions than Osaka across the event, despite having spent less time on court.
She was also once again in fine form against Williams, recovering from the shock of losing the first set 6-1, despite not playing badly.
She showed the power in her game during her fightback, crucially combining it with a low error count. For large portions of the match she was virtually error-free. The final tally saw her also on just 17 unforced errors across three sets.
Essentially both players are in great form. Both are strong shot-makers and neither is weak defensively. For me, it should be close.
The historical head-to-head is also tight but I’m not sure it means an awful lot.
For the record, Osaka leads 2-1 but both of her wins came on clay (the most recent 6-3 in the third at Roland Garros last year). Azarenka won the only hardcourt encounter – 6-1 6-1 at the 2016 Australian Open – but Osaka was just 18 at the time.
Neither can I separate them, at least significantly, in terms of experience.
While Azarenka has clearly played more matches and is considerably older, Osaka has sat at this top table before.
Like Azarenka, she is a two-time Grand Slam champion – one of her titles coming in New York in 2018. Both of Azarenka’s were at the Australian Open, the last in 2013. Nerves seem unlikely to be a major issue.
Perhaps Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette could be the difference. He previously worked with Azarenka and knows her game well but, as he pointed out in an interview on Friday, his current charge is a “big-time intuition player” rather than the analytical machine that Azarenka is. He won’t be filling her head full of stats.
Given I’m struggling to split the pair, the market suggests to me that Azarenka is the bet.
She’s up as the 6/4 underdog and I’m surprised she’s that big. Remember she was sent off as favourite against Williams on Thursday.
The remaining ‘tennis mom’ has beaten a string of quality players since arriving in New York – she also won the Western and Southern Open warm-up event.
The average ranking of her opponents in this tournament is just 43 with Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Muchova, Elise Mertens and Williams all defeated. Osaka’s equivalent figure is 75 with only one player ranked higher than Azarenka (Anett Kontaveit) faced.
At the price, Azarenka is the bet.
In the sub-markets, there’s a statistical 8/1 shot which makes appeal, namely that Osaka serves no double faults.
She’s produced just two in the pair’s three previous meetings, suggesting she isn’t that fazed by the Azarenka return.
In the last two rounds in this tournament, she’s served just one (in three sets) against Brady and one against Shelby Rogers.
It may be a value loser but a small-stakes play looks worth a try.
Best bet: Victoria Azarenka to win at 6/4
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