Her Winning Self, Her Truest Self

by: Steve Tignor | September 08, 2013

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Manuela Davies/Doublexposure

NEW YORK—From the start of this year’s U.S. Open, the question on the women’s side had been simple: Who would win a final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka? The top two seeds, who had played a close title match at Flushing Meadows in 2012 and and an even closer one in Cincinnati three weeks ago, were the heavy favorites to meet in the same round again; so much so that it was hard to imagine an alternative scenario. But when Serena and Vika did find themselves across the net from each other on Sunday, there was a third player in the arena, one with more power than either of them.

No, I’m not talking about Bill Clinton, though the 42nd president of the United States did make a mid-match appearance in Ashe Stadium. I’m talking about the wind. The first few games of this final showed how quickly two Grand Slam champions can be made to look like struggling intermediates just trying to keep the ball within 10 feet of the court. The breeze, which swirled unpredictably and picked up as the first set progressed, wreaked havoc on all of their shots. Serena and Vika opened the match by trading errors and trading service breaks. After every miss, Serena gestured to her player box that she had no idea where the ball was going to go next.

The quality of play from both women improved, but the nature of this contest never changed. It was a scrap from the start of the first set until midway through the third. Nothing was easy and not a lot was pretty. Between the two players, there were 11 breaks of serve, 12 double faults, and 10 more errors than winners. Azarenka squandered chances in the first and third sets, and a nervous Serena couldn’t close the second set even with a 4-1, two-break lead.

But while mistakes were part of this imperfect, tumultuous final, they weren’t what defined it. For two sets, what defined it were the ways that Serena and Vika fought to do their best and make it a dramatic evening in spite of the conditions and the occasion. As Azarenka put it afterward:

“It’s not the wind. It’s not the sun. It’s about the match. You know, it’s about the ball. You try to do whatever it takes to win the point with whatever circumstances you’ve got to go through.”

Each woman did what it took in a recognizable manner. Vika, as usual, faced up to Serena’s power and aura in a way that most other women simply can’t. Azarenka was two points from winning the first set at 5-4, when Serena lost all confidence in her serve. But Vika didn’t win that set, and the disappointment showed when she went down 1-4 in the second. But that wasn’t the end of her; nothing seemed to be the end of her. Taking risks and making big shots in the wind, she came back from 1-4, and she broke Serena twice when the American served for the match, at 4-5 and 5-6. In the first of those games, Serena hit two serves that would have almost certainly gone unreturned against anyone else, but not against Vika. She was fearless in the second set tiebreaker as well, making a big swinging volley through a huge gust of wind and coming back from 1-3 to win 8-6.

“When two people who want [to win] so bad, it's like a clash,” said Azarenka when asked to describe how it feels to face Serena. "That’s what happens out there, those battles.” Vika put her fists together. “And in the important moments is who is more brave, who is more consistent, or who takes more risk. With somebody like Serena you got to take risk. You can never play safe.”

While Azarenka played with back-against-the-wall abandon, Serena won this match by going in the opposite direction. For obvious reasons, she’s famous for hitting big, but in recent years she’s has won a lot of important matches—including last year’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals—by calming down, quieting down, and playing with more control when it matters most. That was true again tonight. In the first and third sets, it was as if she had to get anxious, and then let all of that anxiety out, before she could settle in and play focused tennis. 

At 4-5 in the first set, Serena double-faulted, screamed at the wind, and barely scraped together the shakiest of holds. Then, at 5-5 and 6-5, she was suddenly laser sharp and utterly composed. By the start of the third set, though, Serena was reeling again. She had blown two chances to serve out the match, chucked her racquet in disgust, and was immediately down 0-30 in the opening game of the third. So what did she do? She went quiet again, stopped going for lines in the wind, robbed Vika of the pace she loves, and reigned in her emotions. Serena lost one game in the third set and turned a disaster in the making into a runaway, 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-1 victory.

Afterward, Serena admitted that she “got a little uptight,” as she put it, when she served for the match in the second set. But when she was asked about taking pace off the ball and going for control in the third, she didn’t quite cop to it.

“I definitely didn’t try to hit softer, but maybe I did,” she said. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I tried to make less errors. I thought, ‘This is outrageous that I’m still out here.' So I thought, 'You know what? I just have to relax, calm down, and play smarter tennis.' The whole match I wasn’t playing smart, and I needed to play better.”

More than her serve or her athleticism or her power or her game face, this is what separates Serena from other players. She gets tight like everyone else, emotional like everyone else, panicky like everyone else, and she tells herself to relax like everyone else. The difference is that she listens. After hyperventilating for half of the U.S. Open final, in the crucial moments she was able to make herself calm down and hit the right shots, her best shots. Sometimes, as in the third set, that means going for a little less; other times, like at the end of the first set, it means finding the confidence to hit out. In both cases, there’s a core of self-belief in Serena that is rare even in the world’s greatest athletes. 

I said that the biggest question of the women’s tournament had been who would win between Vika and Serena. That wasn’t exactly true: The question beneath that question was who would win between Serena and herself. She’s known for having multiple personalities, and they exist on court as well. At Wimbledon Serena went away from her aggressive instincts and lost out to her nerves. Tonight, despite facing very persistent foes in Azarenka and the swirling breeze, Serena mastered her nerves and found the right balance between aggression and control.

That’s usually how it goes for her. This was Serena’s 17th major title, putting her one behind both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But Serena is already one up on them in another way: Her record in the matches that separate the great from the good, the Grand Slam finals. Evert was 18-16 in them, Navratilova 18-14. Serena is 17-4. More than any other player of the Open era, her winning self is her truest self.

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