NEW YORK—A pair of images from the moments after the end of today’s final, in which Serena Williams survived an astonishing comeback by Victoria Azarenka to win, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1, told the story more eloquently than any blow-by-blow will.
The women had already exchanged their post-match handshake when Williams wandered back onto the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium. She clenched her fist and, once again, screamed “Yes!” Then she added, as if she’d just walloped a winner, “Come on!!!!” At the same time, Azarenka sat in her chair, trying very hard to keep her crying from becoming outright weeping.
It was that kind of match; gut-wrenching, often ugly, marred by swirling winds and patches of terrible play by both women, one vying for recognition as the greatest female player of all time, and another one longing to prove that she’s got the game to back up her heart—and will—of steel.
In the first set, it looked as if Azarenka’s determination might prevail over what is surely the most explosive, lethal game in the history of women’s tennis. That was partly because Williams struggled, and not just with the fierce gusts of wind that raced around the stadium. She broke Azarenka in the first game but then allowed herself to be broken, an indignity she’d suffered only twice before in the tournament. By the time the lead reverted to Azarenka at 5-4, it was clear that Williams was having enormous problems with the wind—far more, in fact, than her patient and cool opponent.
All the difficulties came to a head in the 10th game for the error-prone defending champ. The wind perpetually lifted her skirt up over her waist (were it any longer we might have fear that she would suffocate under it), she was barely getting half her first serves into play, and struggling to win half the points when she hit second serves. By the fourth point of that game she’d hit her 12th unforced error—twice the number as Azarenka.
But Azarenka never did reach break point in that game, despite stretching it to seven-and-a-half minutes through three deuces. Oddly enough, the turning point in the game—and, it seemed, the set—came when Azarenka brought the game to a second deuce with a heavily cut drop shot for which Williams had no answer.
From that point, Williams whacked a cross-court backhand winner, and while Azarenka reached the haven of deuce again, Williams finished out the game with a sizzling drive volley and a 104 M.P.H ace. Having found her game at the 11th hour, she capitalized on a break-point opportunity in the next game, blasting a backhand service return that Azarenka couldn’t get back into the court.
Williams, top-ranked and top-seeded, immediately broke Azarenka to open the second set, and after surviving two break points in the fourth game she broke the No. 2 seed again for a 4-1 lead. The best server in the history of women’s tennis and one of the greatest competitors the game has ever produced now led by a set and two breaks.
Azarenka, though, would not relent or crack. She continued to play with extreme aggression, while the weight of history seemed to suddenly weigh heavily on the arm and mind of Williams. Serena began to make unforced errors, and Azarenka was tough enough to capitalize on all her opportunities. She forced Williams to go for outright winners, which isn’t always the best policy. But Williams’ nerves were on Azarenka’s side, and she broke for 2-4. After three ensuing holds, Azarenka did what many would have called unimaginable: She broke Williams for the second time in the set to level it at 5-all.
Another pair of breaks sent the women reeling and stumbling into the tiebreaker, in which Williams was unable to hold a 3-1 lead. She gave up a mini-break of her own for 3-all, then was the next to blink, drilling a backhand into the net to give Azarenka a 6-4 lead that proved irreversible.
Williams was certainly knocked back on her heels. Given that she had clearly been much less disposed to accept the windy conditions and the way Azarenka had, by the third set, grown preternaturally calm and clear-eyed, it was hard to see how Williams would muster the energy and confidence to take back the match that was snatched from her hands.
But that’s when the Williams factor kicked in again. She pulled herself together and played even with Azarenka until the fourth game of the third set. All afternoon, Azarenka had done a pretty good job serving (she had struggled with the shot throughout the tournament), but the delivery let her down in the fourth game. She hit two double faults, the second at break point, to fall behind 1-3.
At this point, Williams, eerily poised, unemotional, and cold-eyed, played the best game of the match. It started with a 124 M.P.H. serve, after which she dropped a lovely topspin lob over the head of Azarenka. It was her 33rd winner of the match (as compared to Azarenka's 17), and she backed it up with two more aces to remind us of just how she’s managed to win—at that point—16 Grand Slam titles.
This was such a forceful statement that even Azarenka couldn’t resist it. All throughout this match, Azarenka had shown that whatever else obtains, Serena Williams doesn’t intimidate her, or even cause her game to go to pieces in the manner of so many other WTA pros. At the same time, Azarenka simply couldn’t withstand or counter the bold and powerful shots of Williams. The jig was up. After taking a 30-15 lead in the sixth game, Azarenka made four consecutive forehand errors to drop serve again.
This time, there would be no comeback from two breaks down, as Williams served it out without any further drama.
IBM Stat of the Match: One reason Azarenka was able to cause Williams so much grief was because of her successful drop shots and net play. She won 67 percent of her net chances (10 of 15) while Williams converted just 31 percent (four of 13)—a tribute to Vika’s passing shots and lob.
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