U.S. Open: What to Watch on Thursday

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How to watch: From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on ESPN2 and from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on ESPN; and streaming on the ESPN app.

On Thursday night, the women’s semifinals will be contested by some household names and one newcomer. Naomi Osaka will face Jennifer Brady, a first-time semifinalist, while Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka will meet for the 23rd time in their careers. But first, in the afternoon, will be the men’s doubles final between a pair of proven doubles champions and two rising stars.

All times are Eastern.

Arthur Ashe Stadium | 7 p.m.

Osaka, the 2018 U.S. Open champion, has solidified herself as a favorite for this year’s title. There were concerns at the beginning of the tournament that Osaka could be derailed by a hamstring injury she sustained during the Western & Southern Open. Those concerns subsided as the tournament went on. It was clear, especially in Osaka’s round-of-16 and quarterfinal matches, that she had hit her stride.

Osaka has credited her form to off-season preparation with a trusted support team, and she has played with the kind of confidence befitting a two-time Grand Slam champion. But she stops short of saying that she feels comfortable in the later stages of Grand Slams. “I don’t think a person can ever be truly comfortable,” Osaka said at a recent news conference. “But for me, I’m aware that I worked very hard to be in this position.”

Osaka’s powerful groundstrokes are her most recognized asset, but so far at this Open the 22-year-old’s mental fortitude has been her key weapon. In her quarterfinal match against Shelby Rogers, Osaka committed only eight unforced errors. For an offensive baseline player, that’s a remarkable feat, and one that should cause alarm for her opponents.

Brady, the 28th seed, is the only semifinalist who lacks a Grand Slam title. She has reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at a time when her game has improved considerably. Brady, 25, has yet to drop a set at the U.S. Open, and she won the Top Seed Open, her first WTA Tour title, last month without dropping a set.

Brady traveled to Germany last winter, bypassing the favored American training centers in Florida, to work, as she said, “outside of the box.” That bet has paid off, taking Brady’s game to a higher level.

But facing a former champion is tough, and even tougher when that champion has been playing some of her best tennis. Brady will have to go into Arthur Ashe Stadium with gusto, aiming to unsettle Osaka before she begins to draw on her experience.

Arthur Ashe Stadium | Approximately 9 p.m.

In early 2018, when Williams returned to the WTA Tour after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, many doubted whether she could regain her usual level of excellence. In the two and a half years since, Williams has played in four Grand Slam finals, at Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019 and at the U.S. Open the same years.

But she is still looking for her first Grand Slam title since she became a mother. To get it, Williams will need two more victories this week at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she has won a record 101 matches.

Her last three matches at the Open have all gone to three sets, and at times she has looked out of her depth. Yet during those slumps, Williams has consistently found something special and edged past her opponents.

It will be interesting to see if Williams’s energy levels can rebound after just a day’s rest ahead of the semifinal. In New York’s heat and humidity, the toll of those extra sets may assert itself.

Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, blasted past the 16th seed, Elise Mertens, in the quarterfinals, dropping just one game. Ahead of the U.S. Open, Azarenka won the Western & Southern Open (Osaka withdrew because of a hamstring injury), after having not won a match on the WTA Tour in over a year.

Now, brimming with confidence, and comparatively well rested, she will have her eyes locked on her first U.S. Open title. The most overwhelming quality of Azarenka’s game these past few weeks has been her groundstrokes. Rightly known as one of the best baseline players in the world, she has used that skill to bully opponents, forcing them to play off the back foot. Then, to put the nail in the coffin, Azarenka has been moving into the net, cutting off short balls with tightly angled shots.

Williams will have history on her side; she has won 18 of the pair’s 22 matches. Two of those meetings came in the finals of the U.S. Open, in 2012 and 2013. With both players performing at levels close to their peak, their semifinal will undeniably be another classic under the lights.

Arthur Ashe Stadium | 3 p.m.

Although Mektic and Koolhof, the No. 8 seeds, appear to have the advantage over the unseeded Pavic and Soares, the facts are more complicated. Pavic and Soares are veterans, each having won multiple Grand Slam titles in doubles, mixed and men’s, and at times during this tournament they have seemed near the peak of their abilities.

Soares plays with a sense of flair. He looks to outfox opponents rather than to overpower them. Pavic is the perfect foil, with a big serve and a wingspan that allows him to chase down tough balls while he’s at the net. Their partnership resembles a perfectly calibrated machine in the way they move to cover space for each other. Given their experience, it’s hard to see a way out for their opponents.

But Mektic and Koolhof, in their first Grand Slam final together, will not be rollovers. In their semifinal against the Australian Open champions, Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury, they seemed to make almost no mistakes. Between Mektic’s powerful serves and Koolhof’s deft touch, which was beautifully demonstrated by a pair of perfect lobs on important points, this team has every shot in the book. But a Grand Slam final can unsettle even the most formidable competitors, and Koolhof and Mektic will need to stay calm if they’re to have a chance at clinching their first major men’s doubles title.

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