Doha: Azarenka d. S. Williams

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Serena Williams will displace Victoria Azarenka as the WTA No. 1 on Monday, but the woman she’ll leapfrog over will leave Doha with her pride more than ameliorated. For at this critical event, Azarenka finally overcame the hex of Serena, beating her for the first time since April 2009 in a tense, two-and-a-half hour final, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3.

For Azarenka, it must have seemed like business left unfinished from last September, when she was within two points of defeating Williams in the U.S. Open final—only to shrivel while Serena roared back to win the match. This time, Azarenka was up to the challenge. Running like a gazelle, showing greater grit and more consistent resolve, the 23-year-old from Belarus demonstrated that even a player as great as Williams can’t dilly-dally and give away too many free points.

Going in, the key question appeared to be: Can Azarenka handle that glorious Williams serve? And while Williams hit 11 aces today (including four in one game), it was Azarenka’s serve that actually had a greater influence on the outcome.

This is something you can’t abstract from the final match stats, in which the women have comparable first-serve percentages (65 percent for Azarenka, 61 for Williams). Azarenka’s overall percentage was dragged down by poor serving in the set she lost. In the first set, though, she tagged 72 percent of her first serves, and in that decisive third set she hit a sparkling 80 percent—and won 79 percent of her first-serve points.

If there was a “turning point” in this match, it occurred at 0-30 in the first game of the final set, which started with Azarenka delivering her seventh double fault, followed by a forehand service return winner by Williams. Having been broken twice in the second set, it looked as if it all might slide away from Azarenka once again. But her serve stabilized things, as she reeled off the next four points—three of them ending with winners—to hold.

Azarenka then took advantage of a handful of Williams second serves to break in the very next game, taking a 2-0 lead that she wouldn’t relinquish. As she said later, “When I started at 0-30 in that (first) game of the third, I thought, ‘Okay, this is Serena. I’d better step it up.’”

The lapse by Williams in that second game was emblematic of her performance on the day. Too often in the first and third sets, Williams looked sluggish and played within herself, and not in a good way. Perhaps the emotional toll of the past few days was too much for her: After all, she secured her return to No. 1 through a fierce, three-set struggle with Petra Kvitova, and dispatched the ever-dogged Maria Sharapova to make the final. At 31 years of age, she can’t have the drive and appetite of a twenty-something.

Time and again in the final, Williams made gestures of futility to her friends seated courtside. She glared at her racquet as if some strange bug were perched on its strings. Sometimes, she smacked her thigh as if it would make her feet move more quickly following shots that were spoiled by poor footwork.

Meanwhile, Azarenka kept her head down and blotted out all potential distractions. She understood what she had to do, and was more capable than ever before of accomplishing the job. It was a mental and emotional victory, but also one made possible by a few new wrinkles in her game—starting with a newfound willingness to attack and press the advantage provided by her pile-driving groundstrokes. It isn’t all that often that terrific coaching pays such obvious dividend, but Sam Sumyk deserves a star for making Azarenka a better player than she was at this time last year.

Although I mentioned a “turning point” above, to me the most telling moment of the match occurred during the first-set tiebreaker. Williams had a set point at 6-5 (with two serves to come) following a double fault and a backhand error by Azarenka. On the ensuing point, Azarenka attacked the net and forced a forehand passing shot error to wipe away the set point. She then belted an inside-out backhand service return winner to go up 7-6. She won the set after she served the next point, forcing Williams into a rally that ended with a cross-court backhand error.

The outstanding feature in that string of points was Azarenka’s aggression—her desire to move forward and willingness to force the action.

Azarenka may fall to No. 2 on Monday, but she’s a better player than she was for most of the time when she was on top, and everyone—including Serena—will have to come to grips with that reality in the coming months.

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