NEW YORK, NY, USA - Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka surged into her first Grand Slam final since 2013, rallying from a set down to surprise rival Serena Williams, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, to reach her third US Open final and book a clash with 2018 champion Naomi Osaka.
"Seven is my favorite number, so I guess it's meant to be," Azarenka noted, joking about the gap between major final appearances during her on-court interview. "I'm very grateful for this opportunity, to be able to play such a champion in a semifinal. The road to the final requires you to beat the best players, and today was definitely that day."
Azarenka extended her winning streak to 11 in a row in a battle of tour mothers, and scored her first win over Williams at a major tournament - halting her quest for a 24th major - after one hour and 55 minutes under the Arthur Ashe roof, closed for rain.
"Hopefully this inspires women to go after their dreams. I feel like you can't always identify yourself as just one thing, because we have many things we can do in our lives. A parent is the most important thing I can be in my life, but I'm also a tennis player, a fighter on the court. I want to go after my personal dreams, to inspire my child. I hope women around the world know they can do anything. Being a parent is the toughest thing, so once you can balance that, you can do anything."
RIVALRY RECORD: Serena Williams vs Victoria Azarenka
"I knew it's never over, and I said that before the match. I didn't think it was over even when I led 5-3 in the third, because I've been there before!" she added, noting her 2012 US Open final loss to Williams, where she also led 5-3 in the final set before finishing runner-up.
"I was young. My ego was way too big. Now it's a little smaller, and the results are coming."
Williams and Azarenka renewed their storied rivalry for the first time since the 2019 BNP Paribas Open to play their first US Open meeting since facing off in the 2013 final. A 23-time Grand Slam champion, the No.3 seed hasn't lost before the semifinals in her last 11 appearances, and was in hot pursuit of both an all-time record-tying 24th major title and a seventh US Open crown.
Winning three straight three-setters to reach the final four, she survived rivals Sloane Stephens and Maria Sakkari - who shocked her last week at the Western & Southern Open - and outlasted fellow tour mom Tsvetana Pironkova in an entertaining quarterfinal encounter.
Azarenka rolled into the semifinals in the midst of a career renaissance, having captured her first title since giving birth to son Leo last week at the Flushing Meadows-held Western & Southern Open, and has lost just two sets in her last 10 matches - most notably avenging a 2019 US Open loss to Aryna Sabalenka in the second round and blitzing No.16 seed Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals.
Though all four of the former World No.1's wins over Williams have come in high-stakes finals, she faced an uphill 0-10 major record against the American, who began the second semifinal of the evening in imperious form with a double break advantage.
Azarenka got on the board and began making in-roads on the Williams serve, forcing her to save a break point in the first extended game of the match. Williams responded in her inimitable style, outrallying Azarenka to earn set points, converting her second with a forehand putaway.
"She dug me in a big hole in the first set. I had to climb my way out of there one by one, and I was happy to turn it around, because it wasn't easy, for sure."
Aiming to continue that momentum early in the second set, Williams worked to break point in the two-time Australian Open champion's opening service game, only to net a backhand return as Azarenka evened the score and turned the tables, edging ahead by a break of her own.
"I think it's the daily work I've been doing to find that calm mind and match it with an excited body, because I had to keep moving and bringing the energy. There's no crowd to get energy from, so I had to give it to myself!"
The No.3 seed twice fell behind break point at 2-4, saving the second with a thunderous serve, but Azarenka was undaunted, holding for 5-3 and closed out a near-perfect set with 12 winners to just one unforced error, hitting her 12th winner - an inside-out backhand - on set point.
The ensuing decider took a tense turn early on as Williams called for a medical timeout to address an acute Achilles. Azarenka emerged from the timeout to break at her second opportunity, and was soon up 3-0 and on course for a first major final in seven years.
Four points from defeat, Serena bravely served to stay in the match and put the spotlight on Azarenka, who moved to match point on her own serve. In one last twist, Williams challenged Azarenka's delivery, which was ultimately ruled in by Hawkeye, sealing the win for the Belarusian.
It was a clean match from both women, who each hit more winners than unforced errors. Williams struck more winners (35 to 24) but also more errors (28 to 17), and was unable to engineer a break point in the final set. Azarenka, by contrast, struck 20 of her winners in the final two sets, and dropped just four points behind her first serve in the decider.
Standing between Azarenka and a first major title since 2013 - and her first anywhere outside Melbourne - is Osaka, who was scheduled to play the former World No.1 at the Western & Southern Open before the Japanese youngster was forced to withdraw due to a hamstring injury. Osaka overcame on-fire American Jennifer Brady in her Grand Slam semifinal debut after three scintillating sets earlier in the evening.
"I'm so excited to play her because we were supposed to play last week. It's going to be super fun. She plays incredibly. I watched her semifinal a little today, and they had some incredible rallies. She's super powerful, so I'll have to stay strong and have fun. Playing a final is a blessing and a great opportunity, so I'll take all the fun out of it."
Their two most recent meetings, both on clay, were won by Osaka at the 2018 Internazionali BNL d'Italia and the 2019 French Open - the latter went three sets.