NEW YORK — After one errant forehand in the first set of the U.S. Open final, Naomi Osaka looked at her coach in the mostly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium stands with palms up, as if to say, "What the heck is happening?"
In response to another wayward forehand against Victoria Azarenka seconds later, Osaka chucked her racket. It spun a bit and rattled against the court.
Surprisingly off-kilter in the early going Saturday, Osaka kept missing shots and digging herself a deficit. Until, suddenly, she lifted her game, and Azarenka couldn't sustain her start. By the end, Osaka pulled away to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 comeback victory for her second U.S. Open championship and third Grand Slam title overall.
"For me, I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in an under an hour," said Osaka, who laid down on her back on court after winning.
This, then, is what she told herself when things looked bleakest: "I just have to try as hard as I can and stop having a really bad attitude."
It worked. A quarter-century had passed since a woman who lost the first set of a U.S. Open final wound up winning: In 1994, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario did it against Steffi Graf.
This one was a back-and-forth affair. Even after Osaka surged ahead 4-1 in the third set, the outcome was unclear. She held four break points in the next game — convert any of those, and she would have served for the win at 5-1 — but Azarenka didn't flinch.
Azarenka held there, somehow, and broke to get to 4-3, then stood and stretched during the ensuing changeover.
But Osaka regained control, then covered her face when the final was over.
"I actually don't want to play you in more finals," a smiling Osaka told Azarenka afterward. "I didn't enjoy that."
Osaka, a 22-year-old born in Japan and now based in the United States, added to her trophies from the 2018 U.S. Open — earned with a brilliant performance in a memorably chaotic final against Serena Williams — and 2019 Australian Open.
Dominic Thiem says he'll face a tough task in the U.S. Open men's singles final against Alexander Zverev.
And perhaps he will today, when both try to become a first-time Grand Slam champion, something men's tennis hasn't seen in six years, thanks largely to the dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
What's certain is that Zverev, as talented as he is, does not present the same kind of hurdle Thiem faced in his three previous title matches at major tournaments — a pair of losses to 12-time French Open champion Nadal in Paris, and one to eight-time Australian Open champion Djokovic in Melbourne.
Doesn't get any more difficult than those assignments.
"I won't change my mindset at all. I know what Sascha is capable of," Thiem said, referring to Zverev by his nickname.
"For me, it really doesn't matter whether it's him or one of the Big Three," he said. "I'll just try to go in there and give my best."
It had been 16 years since Grand Slam semifinals were held without at least one of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, who had combined to win the past 13 major trophies and 56 of the last 67.
Nadal chose not to try to defend his U.S. Open, citing concerns about international travel amid the coronavirus pandemic. Federer is out for the rest of 2020 after two operations on his right knee. And Djokovic's tournament ended at 6-5 in the first set of his fourth-round match when the No. 1 seed and title favorite was disqualified for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball after dropping a game in the first set.
So now there will be a Thiem vs. Zverev final between two members of the 20-something set long seen as capable of winning Grand Slam titles.
"It's huge pressure for both of us," Thiem said.
He is a 27-year-old from Austria who is ranked No. 3 and seeded No. 2 in New York.
Zverev is a 23-year-old from Germany who is ranked No. 7 and seeded No. 5.