Rome: S. Williams d. Azarenka

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At 31 years old, Serena Williams seems to have decided that she has no time left for rivals. Last week she beat world No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in the final in Madrid. This week she beat world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in the final in Rome. She’ll go to Paris next week with the rest of the women’s field barely visible in the rearview mirror.

Serena set the tone right away in this one by breaking Vika in a long opening service game. Azarenka was under immediate pressure, and she began to press. With a break point in the second game, she jumped at a forehand and drilled it in the net. At the same time, Serena was showing off the clay chops that had made her so casually dominant all week: She was sliding, she was retrieving, she was hitting penetrating shots while she was on the run. Her most effective play today was pushing Azarenka outside the sidelines with her cross-court forehand, and following that with a backhand winner into the open court. Serena made this play look absurdly easy, against an opponent who is the aggressor in the majority of her matches. Williams won 74 points on the match, an astonishing 41 of them with winners. And she did it on what for her was an off serving day; Serena made just 59 percent of her first serves—though nine of them went for aces.

You could argue that this one was closer than the score indicated. Many of the games went to deuce, the match lasted for more than an hour and a half, and Azarenka mixed things up enough in the second set—charging forward, trying the drop shot—to briefly get back into it. When Vika came back from 1-4 to 3-4, Serena was nervous enough to hit a very tight backhand return into the net at break point. But Azarenka shot her own comeback in the foot by double faulting on the next break point to go down 3-5. There would be, almost literally, no more returns for Vika from there: Serena hit two aces and a backhand winner to close out the match with a fist-pump and a “Come on!” From the score to the rallies themselves, it was too much of an uphill climb for Azarenka to get back into this one. 

Last year, Serena went to Paris as the clear favorite. This year it’s even clearer; few players have ever distanced themselves from their closest “rivals” the way she has at the moment—maybe we should just call the other top WTA players, “opponents closest to Serena in the rankings.” She melted down in the first round at Roland Garros in 2012, and it’s possible that the weight of expectations will weigh on her again in 2013. But after losing just 14 games in five matches at the Foro Italico, and showing off her new mastery of  a surface she never loved in the past, no one can take Rome away from her.

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