This year’s U.S. Open quarterfinal between Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur was not an upset, but it was still one of 2012’s surprises. Coming in, Stosur had been unable to win so much as a set in their six previous matches. In their last four encounters, the Aussie had mustered just 13 games in total. Why would one Top 10 player so thoroughly dominate another? They each, after all, have won the same number of Grand Slams. That’s tennis—it’s all about match-ups.
It’s all about matches, too, and while this may have gotten lost in the shuffle of a rainy second week at the U.S. Open, Azarenka’s 6-1, 4-7, 7-6 (5) win was one of the year’s finest on either tour, both in terms of quality and excitement. Best of all, we got a chance to see the Sam Stosur—tough, proactive, using all of her athleticism—that we’d been waiting to see since...last year’s U.S. Open. She gave us another brief glimpse of what she can do in this one. It’s worth one more look.
—Like yesterday’s Djokovic-Tsonga quarterfinal in Paris, this match begins as a blowout rather than a classic. You can see right away why Azarenka holds the whip hand when these two play. She’s hitting from inside the baseline, mostly from stationary positions, while Stosur is on the run from well back in her own court. Vika, equally solid and aggressive off both sides, has no trouble exploiting Sam’s slice backhand.
She also has no trouble “demolishing,” as the commentator here puts it, Stosur’s second serve. Which is impressive, considering that in his latest book, tennis historian Steve Flink rated Stosur’s second delivery the best in the history of women’s tennis. As the other commentator in the booth says when Azarenka goes up 4-0 in the first, that’s “just too good.”
—Ashe, as it so often is during day sessions, is empty through the early stages of this one. Unfortunately, that means Azarenka’s long woooo's echo even more clearly through the stadium. She would be just as good, and more popular, without them.
—Azarenka extends her domination with a terrific, athletic, running forehand pass late in the first set, and takes some even bigger cuts on her return early in the second. She also looks comfortable at the net. All of which might have made Stosur throw in the towel on a different day and in a different place—she had lost her last two matches to Vika 6-1, 6-2, and 6-2, 6-3, respectively. But this was her U.S. Open defense, and she’s determined to make the most of it. Sam lets out her first “Come on!” at at 2-2 in the second. At this stage, she looks to change the match’s dynamic by (a) hitting more forehands, (b) hitting bigger forehands, and (c) hitting forehands to surprising locations. She has nothing, after all, to lose. Suddenly, with that shot finding the corners, Sam is the puppet master and Vika the one on a string.
—The commentator’s description of a Sam swing forehand volley as “glorious” is just right. On her good days, Stosur may be the best over-the-shoulder player in women’s tennis; on this day, she relished her chances to hit overheads, even in pressure situations. Anyone who has wished Stosur would toughen up in the past must have enjoyed seeing her not offer Azarenka an apology after winning a point with a net-cord forehand near the end of the second set.
—It doesn’t happen as often as we might like, but this was one match where two opponents pushed each other to play better. There’s good stuff from both throughout the third. Azarenka shows what one commentator calls her “tenacity”—few players are as fierce and concentrated, without let-up, as she is. At the same time, Stosur, despite going down 2-4, won’t cave. Vika is inspired to come up with a great drop shot, while Sam finds the corners and the lines with her backhand.
—Azarenka hits her first difference-making shot at 5-5, break point, when she finds the center service line for a bending ace. Stosur goes down 0-4 in the tiebreaker, but she’s come too far not to take a last crack. She starts her comeback with a squash shot that handcuffs Azarenka, and reaches 5-5 with another eager overhead.
That sets up the most important two shots in the match, which both come from Azarenka at 5-5. First, she takes control of the point with a Djokovic-esque return of serve deep and down the middle of the court. Then she hits her most daring shot of the day, a backhand drop shot winner when she could have easily ripped the ball instead, the way she usually does. Azarenka had missed a similar drop shot earlier in the third and nearly smashed her racquet. If she had done it again here, her frame might have sailed out of Ashe, and we all might have wondered what in the world she was thinking. But Vika didn’t miss. Proving, once again, that execution is all and tactics are, in large part, a matter for hindsight.
—Unfortunately, this one has an anti-climactic match point, as Stosur shanks her final backhand after an Azarenka ground stroke lands on the baseline. It was undeserving end to a deserving day for her.
The clip ends with Azarenka raising her index finger to the crowd, in her now-trademark victory gesture. That might come across as obnoxious, but keeping her top spot in the rankings was a point of pride and a motivator for Vika all season, and she was in danger of surrendering it during the Open. A few seconds after this video ends, she shakes her head with relief when a TV interviewer tells her that by winning, she has retained the No. 1 position. She also, in one of her periodic charm offenses, told the New York audience, who had rooted for Stosur, how much she liked playing in front of them.
Some players, like Serena, don’t worry about being No. 1. Others are destroyed by it. In 2012, Azarenka used it to make herself better, and to win matches like this.