NEW YORK, NY, USA -- In a scintillating battle between two of the WTA’s 20-year-old rising stars, No.20 seed Naomi Osaka of Japan fought back from a break down in the final set to outlast No.26 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, and reach the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career.
"I've always dreamed of playing here and going to the quarterfinals and further," Osaka told the media, during her post-match press conference "So I'm just glad I could do one of my goals."
Indian Wells champion Osaka pulled off a nearly flawless first set before Sabalenka fought back to win the second set and take a 2-1 lead in the decider. But Osaka rebounded to take the three-set affair in just over two hours, ending New Haven champion Sabalenka’s eight-match winning streak.
"I felt like I had a lot of chances to break [Sabalenka] in the third set, then she would serve these really amazing serves," said Osaka. "Like a part of me knew it was coming, but at the same time I was always very unprepared. I'm just real glad I was able to win in the end."
"I knew she hits really hard, and she has a good serve," Osaka continued. "She would attack my second serve. That's basically all I thought about. I was just trying to weather the storm. If I had chances, try to do something with the ball. Other than that, I tried to play as consistent as I can."
Osaka becomes the first Japanese Grand Slam quarterfinalist since Shinobu Asagoe reached the last eight at the US Open in 2004. The young Japanese star did so by slightly edging Sabalenka in both receiving points won and first-serve points won, and used nine aces to carry her to the narrow victory.
In the elite eight, Osaka will face another first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine, who escaped her own highly competitive battle when she overcame 19-year-old Czech Marketa Vondrousova in three sets on Monday.
Sabalenka claimed the first break point of the match at 2-1, but fired a backhand return of an Osaka second serve long, and the Japanese player cruised through the game from there to hold for 2-2.
The escape by Osaka seemed to spur her on, as she started to pull away from Sabalenka throughout the remainder of the set. Osaka quickly reached triple break point in the next game, and though Sabalenka fended off two of Osaka's opportunities with powerful serves, the Belarusian double faulted on the third to hand over the first break of the match.
Osaka blasted two aces and a service winner in the following game, consolidating the break for a 4-2 lead, and also held with ease in her next service game, acing on game point for 5-3. Osaka then swiftly reached triple set point on Sabalenka’s serve by cracking open a rally with a forehand winner; a backhand error by Sabalenka on the first set point gave Osaka the one-set lead.
But it was Sabalenka who came roaring back in the second set, claiming her first break of the tilt to go up 2-1 after a 14-point game where the Belarusian started to charge the net on a regular basis. She continued with this tactic to consolidate for 3-1, closing out that game with a winning volley.
Osaka’s unforced error count mounted as the set started to slip away from her, and Sabalenka grasped a double-break lead en route to 5-1. The Belarusian held two set points on Osaka’s serve in that game, but the Japanese player erased both and held for 5-2, forcing Sabalenka to serve for the set.
Sabalenka was up to the task, holding with an ace to tie the tussle at one set apiece. The Belarusian had 12 winners to 11 unforced errors in the second set, much improving upon her first-set ratio of 8 winners to 14 unforced errors.
Sabalenka continued to hold the momentum in the decider, using outlandishly powerful returns to claim another break of Osaka’s serve and lead 2-1. But Osaka stayed mentally tough and quickly got the break back, leveling the set at 2-2 by forcing an error with a strong crosscourt forehand on break point.
The Belarusian started to lose potency on her serve, with double faults routinely creeping into her game. But Sabalenka showed off her own mental toughness that has been present all summer, rebounding from 0-40 to hold for 3-3, and then from 0-30 to hold again for 4-4.
But during this period, Osaka was being untested on serve, and put the pressure back on Sabalenka by holding at love for 5-4, with an ace. Sabalenka again hit miscues to fall behind 0-40, setting Osaka up with triple match point.
However, bruising serves and forehands by Sabalenka dragged her to deuce once more, and she held a game point to level at 5-5. But Osaka found her way back to deuce, and a huge forehand return gave her a fourth match point. There, Sabalenka’s increasing double fault count caught up with her, as she hit one more to send Osaka into a maiden major quarterfinal.
"I was just thinking to make it as competitive as possible, and hopefully she'll feel a little bit of pressure, and I'm able to break back," Osaka said, regarding the tightly contested third set, where she finally emerged victorious. "I'm really glad that's what I was able to do. And basically just to keep fighting for everything."