By the middle of the third set, the final between No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati had a strong sense of déjà vu about it. Just like at the U.S. Open last September, Williams won the first set and Azarenka won the second by matching 6-2 scores. Just like at the Open, Vika went up a break in the third only to get tight and hand the lead back to Serena. Even the shot that had signaled Azarenka’s collapse in New York, a tight forehand into the net, had returned at exactly the same moment in Cincy.
At the Open, Serena came back from a 3-5 deficit to win 7-5. Today, when Serena fought from 2-4 down to serve for the title at 5-4, it appeared that the familiar script would be written one more time. But this time we were in for a twist—two of them, in fact.
Azarenka, firing three straight backhand returns down the middle of the court, broke a curiously tentative Serena for 5-5. The pattern repeated itself in the deciding tiebreaker a few minutes later. Azarenka went up 4-2, before missing two more tight forehands into the net to fall behind 5-4. Surely, Serena, with the match on her racquet again, wouldn’t let it slip away a second time. But that’s what happened, as Williams, with an entire open court in front of her, somehow couldn’t find it with the easiest of backhands. Two points later, at 6-6, Azarenka did find the court with the shot of the match, a forehand stop volley winner from her shoetops that seemed to leave her as stunned as the rest of us. Even Serena had no answer for it; she drilled a forehand into the net on the next point to end the match. Vika had written a new third-set script between then, just in time for this year’s U.S. Open. She had also won, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6), for her first title since February. Coincidentally, that title had come in Doha, where she also beat Serena in a three-set final.
Williams, a winner in Toronto last week, was playing her 10th match in 15 days, and at times she looked a little weary mentally. She had made it all look so easy in rolling through the first set—a little too easy, it would turn out. Azarenka got her teeth into the match in the second, and never let go. Even a 20-minute, 13-deuce hold by Serena at 1-4—the American saved eight break points—couldn’t deter Vika. After going down 0-40 on her serve in the next game, she came through with a tough hold of her own to keep the momentum on her side.
By the middle of the third set, Azarenka was hitting the ball very cleanly, perhaps better than she has since the start of the season. Only a U.S. Open-style attack of nerves could lose it for her. The attack came, but this time she survived. This time, in the new script, it was Serena who was the last to falter, and Vika the last to come through when it mattered most.
After a slow and painful summer, Azarenka has given herself a boost heading for New York. She’s also given the women's event there a boost in terms of intrigue. Serena is still No. 1, still the favorite, still the defending champion—and she still owns a 12-3 record over Azarenka. But Vika has won their last two meetings on hard courts, and today she showed again that, unlike the rest of the Top 10, she can give as good as she gets against Serena. More important, she can win.