NEW YORK—A pulsating thriller between Victoria Azarenka and Samantha Stosur escalated into a third-set tiebreaker with a trip to the U.S. Open semifinals—and more—on the line. Defending champion Stosur was playing to prolong her U.S. Open reign, while Azarenka’s world No. 1 ranking was riding on the outcome. As tension ratcheted up, neither woman gave an inch, but the net was a more forgiving force.
Deadlocked at 5-5 in tennis’ version of sudden death, Azarenka was jolted to life racing to a net-cord shot and responding with a backhand drop shot winner. One of the softest shots of the day proved to be the most profound points of the match, as Azarenka squeezed out a dramatic, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5) victory to reach her first U.S. Open semifinal.
The top seed, who raised her 2012 hard-court record to 31-2, is now 11-0 in three-setters this season, prevailing in a demanding duel against a stubborn opponent she had previously dominated. Contesting her third straight U.S. Open quarterfinal, Stosur was skittish at the start—you’d be tight, too, if you were facing someone who had deconstructed your game, winning all 12 of the prior sets you played—committing four consecutive errors to drop serve at love in an abysmal opening game.
The 6' Azarenka had handled the shoulder-high bounce of Stosur’s kick serve and forehand with all the ease of a woman slamming shut a door in their past encounters. The seventh-seeded Aussie tried to keep the ball low and out of Azarenka’s expansive strike zone, but netted five shots in the first two games as Azarenka consolidated. The Australian Open champion broke with a forehand pass to seize a 3-0 lead at the nine-minute mark as the cardboard-colored sky erupted in rain, prompting a suspension of play.
Play resumed after a 75-minute rain delay. Stosur hit an ace and forehand swing volley winner to stall her free fall, 1-4. Stosur’s forehand is a formidable shot, but it’s much more lethal when she’s hitting it from the backhand corner. Azarenka’s depth and direction prevented Stosur from camping out there, and when the Aussie was forced to hit her forehand on the run, control often eluded her in the first set. A running forehand sailed long, giving Azarenka set point, and when Stosur floated a backhand, Azarenka earned her third break to lock down the 30-minute opener, 6-1.
Surprisingly, Azarenka lost the plot as the second set began, committing two double faults to donate the break and a 1-0 lead. Stosur began to step forward, drive her forehand with more authority, and surprise Azarenka by hitting that shot down the line, rather than in her preferred inside-out pattern. She smacked a forehand down the line, rattling her opponent’s racquet, to break for 4-3. Serving for the set at 30-all, Stosur danced around her backhand and lashed a forehand down the line that clipped the tape and fell in for set point. Stosur drilled a serve winner down the middle, seizing the 44-minute second set to level.
Each woman broke twice in the decider as Stosur, a U.S. Open champion in singles and doubles, began to attack more, winning 12 of 16 trips to net in the third set in twice rallying from a break down. Azarenka raced out to a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker, but Stosur stormed back, and when Azarenka’s first double fault of the set sailed long, it was 5-4. Stosur then leveled the score with a smash. On the next point, a Stosur shot tripped off the very top of the tape, hung in the air as if suspended by a string, then settled on Azarenka’s side of the court. She raced up to the ball quickly and calmly, and came under a backhand drop shot winner for match point. When Stosur’s next shot missed the mark, the high-quality two-hour and 23-minute drama was over.
Stosur, who showed class after an agonizing defeat by stopping to sign autographs for fans, applauded the supportive crowd while they, and Azarenka, reciprocated with respect in showering the 2011 champ with a well-deserved round of applause.
"I think we both showed some excellent tennis; you could feel the pressure all of the time," Azarenka told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi in the on-court interview. "I think [the tie breaker was] more mental. In this moment you have to make it; you cannot really wait for a mistake you have to create your opportunities and I’m glad I could manage that."