No. 4 of '13: The Battle Before the War

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The fourth-best match of 2013 was also its most twisted. By which I mean that Victoria Azarenka’s 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) win over Serena Williams in the Cincinnati final had more reversals, zig-zags, and 180s over the course of its two hours and 29 minutes than just about any three sets of tennis this season. It wasn’t perfect, and at times it wasn’t pretty—both players finished with more errors than winners—but the Cincy final was the one time we got to see the world’s two best women players duel to the bitter end. What it lacked in pristine excellence it made up for in theater and tension.

Here’s another winter look back at a summer moment. At the time, it seemed that it might lead to bigger and better things for Azarenka, but it ended up being the summit of her season. Serena, of course, did go on to a bigger and better win at the U.S. Open—over Vika—three weeks later.


—There was a strong sense of déjà vu about this match. As they had in the Open final the previous year, Williams and Azarenka split the first two sets by matching 6-2 scores. And as she had at the Open, Vika went up a break in the third set, only to hand the lead back to Serena. Even the shot that had signaled Azarenka’s collapse in New York, a tentative forehand into the net, returned at virtually the same moment in Cincy.

That pattern—early Serena lead, Vika comeback, Serena counterattack—held true when they played at Flushing Meadows this September as well. Serena may not want to shout it out loud, but Azarenka has earned her respect, enough of it that even when Serena begins by playing well, she struggles to close against her. Azarenka can take some consolation from this. No one else, by her presence alone, makes finishing a match an unsure thing for Williams.

—”Effortless” is how commentator Sam Gore describes Serena’s game through the first set. The word is almost too apt: Much of the time, she’s standing flat-footed in the middle of the court and slapping easy winners. Serena is, as always, hard to read. She looks out of sorts, yet just when you think that something’s wrong or she doesn’t want to be there, she comes out with a scream that lets everyone know that she definitely does want to be there, and she definitely wants to win. 

—A few points in the early going illustrate the most obvious difference between the two: The serve. Specifically, the weakness of Azarenka’s second serve. From the ground, in terms of power and speed, she can hold her own with Serena; but the second serve, soft and short, is her Achilles’ heel. One reason Azarenka wins this match is that, without taking too much off the ball, she made 73 percent of her first serves.

—We’re used to seeing Serena, when things aren't going well, hit a winner and throw her hands in the air, as if to tell herself, “Look how easy it is!” We’re not used to seeing her do it before her shot has even landed, which is what she does on one point in the middle of the second set. But Azarenka didn’t make it easy for her. Even a 20-minute, 13-deuce hold at 1-4 in the second by Serena—she saved eight break points—couldn’t deter Vika this time.

—By the middle of the third set, it was Azarenka who was playing the effortlessly good tennis. She was moving and hitting the ball as cleanly as she had since the start of the season. The expected attack of nerves, as well as the expected rally from Serena, both materialized, but this time Azarenka survived them. This time, in a new—and, as it turned out, only temporary—script, it was Serena who was the last to falter, and Vika the last to come through. When Williams served for the match at 5-4, Azarenka broke her with three straight strong backhand returns down the middle of the court.

—The decisive tiebreaker was a good example of why decisive tiebreakers should be the rule everywhere. It may have been the most fraught few minutes of tennis all season; in that short span of time, the title was Vika’s, then it was Serena’s, then it was Vika’s again. 

Azarenka went up 4-2 before missing two tight forehands 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 open court roughly the size of the Atlantic Ocean 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 shoe-tops that left her as stunned as the rest of us. Even Serena had no answer for it; on the next point she drilled a forehand into the net to end the match. 

—At the time, I wrote of Azarenka, “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.”

That’s still true, but I didn’t know at the time that it would be Williams, rather than Azarenka, who would be the immediate beneficiary of this result. Serena said afterward that she was glad not to go into the U.S. Open with a winning streak (she had her two previous events, in Toronto and Bastad). I’m not sure that would have made a huge difference to her psyche in New York. It would have been a 15-match win streak, which doesn't seem like a colossal mental burden for her to carry. She won 24 matches in a row coming into the French Open and still won the title in Paris.

But that's the thing about Williams: She found a reason—manufactured it—to be positive about a loss that anyone else would have seen as a negative. She lost the battle in Cincy to Vika, their best battle so far, but she used that loss to win the war in New York. The power of the will and the mind, rather than the forehand or the serve, continues to be the real story of Serena Williams.

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