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Naomi Osaka v Victoria Azarenka: US Open final pits tennis' biggest female star against rejuvenated veteran

Japanese fourth seed out to win third Grand Slam title in two years, while unseeded Belarusian is aiming for a first since 2013

Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka go head-to-head in the US Open final on Saturday in a battle between two players both aiming to win their third Grand Slam title.

For Osaka, the fourth seed, it would be a third tennis major trophy in two years, while Azarenka, a former world No 1, is aiming for a first since 2013.

It's a matchup between one of the game's young stars, going from strength to strength, and a veteran whose career is rejuvenated after several years in the doldrums.

The 22-year-old Osaka, her profile rapidly rising due to a combination of powerful tennis and social activism, says she's better prepared than when she stunned Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

"I feel like my mindset is much different this time around," said Osaka, whose rise to become tennis' biggest female star was confirmed when she topped Forbes' annual list of highest paid female athletes for the first time this year.

"I feel like I've learned so much through the ups and downs, not even counting the finals, but just regular tour tournaments. I would say mentally I feel stronger. I feel fitter now. It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian heritage, is wearing different masks honouring victims of racial injustice and police brutality throughout the tournament.

The 2019 Australian Open champion has donned face coverings bearing the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile.

She will wear another on Saturday for the Arthur Ashe showdown, which will take place without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I do think it's a very big motivating factor for me just to try to get the names out to as many people as I can," Osaka said.

Azarenka, 31, is brimming with confidence after coming from a set down to stun her old rival Williams and book a third US Open final.

It will be her first appearance in the final of a tennis major since Williams beat her at the US Open in 2013.

The Belarusian also suffered a heartbreaking loss to Williams in the 2012 US Open, when she served for the match at 5-3 in the third set only to lose 7-5.

Azarenka's two major titles came at the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013.

She has endured a difficult few years. Injury plagued 2014 and 2015 before her career was further disrupted by a custody battle over her son, born in December 2016.

Azarenka is back up to No 27 in the rankings though, and is enjoying a fairytale run at the US Open after claiming last month's Western & Southern Open tune-up event in New York.

If she defeats Osaka then she will become only the fourth women -- after Belgium's Kim Clijsters, Court and fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong -- to win Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era after having children.

Azarenka says she is benefitting from a more zen outlook on life and revelling in the fact that few commentators expected the unseeded player to mount a challenge.

"Mentally I'm in such a different place. I think seven years ago, after I won the Australian Open ... it was kind of expected for me to be in the final," she said.

"I don't think that was the case this year. It feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me."

Osaka and Azarenka have unfinished business after the Japanese player pulled out of the Western & Southern final due to a hamstring injury, handing the title to Azarenka.

"She's a very, very powerful player," Azarenka said of Osaka. "She's a great champion. She's won two already. Aren't we both looking for a third one?"

Updated: September 12, 2020 11:47 AM

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