When Serena Williams walks the halls of Arthur Ashe Stadium, she takes a trip through her past with a familiar face looking over her shoulder.
Photos of Williams raising the silver U.S. Open trophies hang on the walls, reminders of her Grand Slam success—and high standards. The Serena who won five of the six Grand Slam tournaments she entered from 2002 to 2003 not only shadows this Serena everywhere she goes—popping up in press conference questions, shining on the surface of Grand Slam silverware, and residing in the record books—she is the barometer by which Williams is measured.
History makes the court a crowded spot when the world No. 1 takes on No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in a rematch of the 2012 U.S. Open final. Azarenka served for the title at 5-4 last year, only to blink and watch Williams roar back for a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory. Vika won't play the final on hope; she knows what it takes to beat Serena—and knows nothing short of her best will be good enough.
"When you play against Serena, you have to play your best because she makes me play my best," Azarenka said. "I think I kind of do the same way to her. I think we kind of raise each other's level all the time and take each other to the limit."
Williams has been competing with the ferocity of someone accepting nothing less than perfection every set. In the last two rounds, Serena has made two talented players, No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 6 Li Na, look like fretful qualifiers. The American allowed just three games total in the quarterfinal and semifinal thrashings, which saw her dispense three bagels in four sets.
Here’s the scary thing: The 31-year-old is a more complete player than the architect of the Serena Slam and is driven to successfully defend Flushing Meadows for the first time. The 16-time Grand Slam champion has won five of 12 sets by shutout, has surrendered serve just twice while breaking 30 times, is using her slice serve wide to set up her first strike, is managing the court shrewdly, and is establishing command from the first ball.
In short, Serena looks poised to claim her fifth U.S. Open title and cash a record $3.6 million champion’s check, which includes a $1 million bonus to the U.S. Open Series champion.
To do so, she must defeat the rival who has handed her two of her four losses this year. Azarenka has beaten Williams in both of their hard-court final meetings in 2013, scoring a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 win in the Doha final in February and a 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) victory last month in Cincinnati.
Vika can carry the confidence that comes from a WTA-best 31-1 hard-court record in 2013, along with the fact she's won 26 of her last 27 major matches staged on hard courts. More importantly, she knows her heavy strokes can stand up to Serena. Azarenka has not played her best tennis yet, but she's on her best surface and is one win away from her second Grand Slam title of the season.
Here's the troubling trend for Azarenka: She served 65 percent in Doha and 73 percent in Cincinnati, but her serve has been suspect in New York. She's dumped a tournament-high 31 double faults and dropped serve 15 times in her last three matches. To put that in perspective, Williams has only lost 16 games in the entire tournament and was overwhelming in winning 24 consecutive games during one stretch.
Squaring off with Vika for the fourth time this season, Serena doesn’t expect an extensive feeling-out process.
“I know her game as well as she knows mine. She knows what I do great, what I do bad, and what I can do better,” Williams said. “I know the same thing. At this point, it's just all about just playing some tennis now.”
Pressure and confidence are two of the trickiest variables to consider when trying to forecast a final. Mix in the swirling winds around Arthur Ashe Stadium that can scatter service tosses like confetti and even the most experienced champions can crack. Williams feels more pressure in New York than at any other major and has imploded from it in the past. Yet since losing that Cincinnati final to Azarenka, she's looked positively recharged in playing some of her most confident tennis of the year.
One of Azarenka's assets is her ability to exude confidence and compete with toughness even when her best tennis eludes her. There's an authenticity to Azarenka as a competitor that can fuel her when her serve sputters. She couldn't give a damn whether you're annoyed by her shrieking, don't like her pre-match dancing, or deplore the 10-minute medical time-out she took against Sloane Stephens in this year's Australian Open semis. Azarenka's sole focus is winning the point at hand, and that approach has helped her register a 24-3 record in her last 27 three-setters.
I believe Vika will bring the fight; the question is, can she summon the serve? Unless she somehow channels Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, I can't see the Belarusian's serve—at least the serve she's shown in her last six matches—standing up to Serena's explosive return. Flirting with a double-digit double fault day against an iconic champion is like spotting Usain Bolt 10 yards in the hundred—you have no hope playing catch-up.
If Azarenka is to win this match, she has to serve with accuracy, be exceedingly sharp hitting her backhand down the line —the shot she's hurt Serena with in her last two victories—and apply her net skills as she did in the Cincinnati tiebreaker. Even if she does all of that, I think she still needs Serena to get tight and play some philanthropic points.
Williams has romped through the field and can rely on her serve, speed, and fitness if things get tense. She's one of the most convincing closers the game has seen and has spent two weeks streaking through the field. If she holds her nerve—perhaps a tougher task than holding her serve—she will decorate the halls with another trophy shot.
The Pick: Serena Williams in two sets.