NEW YORK—It was a 19-stroke rally, and it ended with a wonderful shot: A backhand plucked out of the air as a volley, with the racquet face turned enough to send the ball back as a successful cross-court lob. It was the kind of shot that brings a crowd to its feet, and the only thing wrong with it was that Alize Cornet made the shot when all hope was pretty much lost, with Victoria Azarenka ahead 5-1, 15-30 in the third set.
Still, it was emblematic of the striking combination of pugnacity and creativity that Cornet, the No. 26 seed, has brought to this U.S. Open, and particularly to this match with Azarenka. At the end, though, Cornet’s firepower expired before her fighting spirit, and she lost to the No. 2 seed, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2.
It was clear from the start of the match that a slightly somnolent Azarenka might be in for a long day. Cornet, a flashy, nimble Frenchwoman who’s never lived up to her full potential, is clearly in one of her waxing phases. She’s back up to No. 28, and clearly enthusiastic. She broke Azarenka early in the match and led 4-1 before last year’s runner-up began to reel her in by demonstrating (once again) that consistency tends to trump volatility. Azarenka took the score to 5-all and had two break points that came to naught, as she made a forehand cross-court error and then failed to return a good Cornet serve.
After Cornet wriggled off the hook, she had two set points in the next game. But a smash winner dismissed one and Cornet hit a rally-ending shank to waste the second opportunity. Azarenka breathed a sigh of relief, but the tiebreaker proved no solution to her problems. Cornet smacked a beauty of a forehand return to force a backhand error to get the mini-break for 2-1, and that was as close as Azarenka got.
By then, even skeptics had to concede that Cornet was a legitimate threat, mainly because her speed and retrieving ability were complimented by penetrating offensive shots that easily turned the tables on Azarenka. It’s no secret that Azarenka likes to dictate, and while she plays some pretty good defense, it isn’t her forte. In rally after rally, Cornet was able to put Azarenka on the run, rather than the other way around—the way Vika likes it.
Also, Cornet responded beautifully to crisis situations at her own end of the court when serving. She had a set in hand and was on serve at 2-3 in the second when Azarenka converted just her second break point in 12 tries. Azarenka was able to serve out the set—but she had to do it twice.
The first time, Azarenka hit a backhand deep to Cornet and squealed with delight at converting the set point. But as she made her way to the chair, the umpire intervened and said that the lineswoman at Cornet’s end had called the shot out, but had not been heard. As the lady nodded to confirm her story, Azarenka yelled at the chair umpire: “You’re freakin’ kidding me! What the hell are you doing?”
But Azarenka calmed down and returned to serve the set point again. She made a forehand error to take it back to deuce, but a potentially ugly controversy was averted when Cornet made two backhand errors to end the set.
Both ladies then repaired to the restroom, and when they returned Cornet struggled in the first game, giving it up with a dispiriting double fault. Azarenka held, and it looked as if Cornet would crumble when Vika reached break point in the next game. But Cornet pulled out a terrific forehand cross-court pass, and then fended off another break point by surviving a 21-shot rally. Azarenka reached break point again, but missed a forehand down the line. On the fourth deuce, Cornet pulled out an ace and followed it with a service winner to hold for 1-2.
The escape might have led to a turnaround, but Azarenka put her foot down and won her next service game easily. Forced to serve again with so little respite, a vulnerable Cornet was broken again. That basically foretold the end, although Cornet went down swinging, salvaging another service game for 2-5 before Azarenka finished her off with another surgical hold.
IBM Stat of the Match: Azarenka saw 18 break points but converted just four. It may seem like a poor performance by the No. 2 seed, but Cornet played some great tennis when her back was against the wall throughout this match.
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