Serena Williams said she didn’t think she’d be nervous for her first Indian Wells final since 2001. The chances that she would be overwhelmed trying to win the tournament that she had boycotted for 14 years were, in her mind, “like zero.”

In a pre-match interview for ESPN, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, echoed her optimism.

“She’s really pumped up,” the Frenchman said with a confident smile.

It was a final, after all, where Serena always excels, and she knew she needed to be ready for a high-quality, high-intensity opponent in Victoria Azarenka.

It took about 30 seconds for Mouratoglou’s smile to disappear, and only slightly longer for Serena to be broken in her opening service game. Flat-footed and uncertain, she double faulted twice and was broken at love. She was, as she was quickly finding out, a little more anxious than she imagined.

“When I walked out there,” Serena said, “I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m really nervous’.”


Serena tried to loosen up in her customary way: by hitting the ball as hard as she could. But while she managed to hold her serve through the rest of the set, she never found her forehand; by blasting through her nerves, she ended up hitting the ball too flat, and with too little margin, and she struggled to move her feet well enough to get in position for the hard-hit balls that Azarenka was sending down the middle of the court.

Worse, when Serena did have a chance to turn the match around, she couldn’t take advantage; she finished 1-for-12 on break points. With Azarenka serving at 4-3 in the first set, Serena earned three of those break points. If she had won one of them, you have to think that Azarenka's mind would have flashed back to all of the other matches where she squandered leads against Serena. This time, though, Serena couldn’t win one of those points: She hit an easy backhand straight back to Azarenka, put another backhand into the net and sent a forehand long. Serena’s biggest ground-stroke weapon was missing, and so was her biggest intangible advantage, her ability to win the points that count most.

You can understand why Serena and Mouratoglou thought everything would be OK going in. The numbers said so: This is a woman who is 21-5 in Grand Slam finals, and who was 17-3 against Azarenka. But in a few of the biggest moments of her career, when matches have been more than just matches, Serena has been tight. She lost to Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final, when she wanted badly to win on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and last year she lost to Roberta Vinci on the same court with a chance at the calendar-year Grand Slam. An Indian Wells final, after what happened to her there, after the time away and her desire to write a “different ending” to her story at the event, was never going to be just another day at the office. When it was over, Serena couldn’t hold back the tears as she thanked the crowd for its support.

Against another opponent, Serena may have found her way through, but Azarenka, despite the deficit in their head to head, is still the closest thing that Serena has to a rival. Vika was painfully close to beating her on three occasions last year; three times she won the first set, and three times Serena came back. On Sunday, Azarenka got off to a similarly fast start, but this time she sustained it. She went for more on her second serve, which led to eight double faults, but which also went a long way toward helping her save those 11 break points. From the baseline, she caught a slow-footed Serena with flat depth down the middle, and played with her usual tenacious mix of offense and defense.

And then the inevitable happened: She almost gave it all away. Serving for the match at 5-2, Vika double faulted twice and was broken. Serving for the match again at 5-4, she went down 15-40 on a 97-m.p.h Serena forehand return. Now, finally, the American was firing; now, finally, the crowd was roaring. Then, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament, Azarenka won four straight points for the title.

It wasn’t the ending that Serena and the audience wanted, but Vika’s win is a good one for the sport in the long run. With her skill, intensity and ability to consistently challenge Serena, Azarenka belongs at the top of the rankings and in the most-watched matches. She also, it seems, belongs on a podium giving victory speeches. On Sunday, she generously thanked a still-tearful Serena for inspiring her and making her a better player.


Aa fate would have it, just as Serena was winding down one controversy involving Indian Wells, another was starting to boil. Earlier in the day, the tournament’s new CEO, former player Raymond Moore, said that the WTA rides “on the coattails of the men.”

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born,” Moore said, “because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Asked about Moore’s ludicrous comments, which are clearly a fireable offense for the head of a dual-gender event, Serena answered with measure and reason.

“I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister,” she said. “I couldn’t even bring up that number ... I think there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men who are exciting to watch. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.”

“You know that is such a disservice to [Billie Jean King] and every female. Not only a female athlete, but every woman on this planet who has ever tried to stand up for what they believed in, and being proud to be a woman.”

On this rare occasion when Serena’s play didn’t win the day, her memorable answer did. Between that and Azarenka’s victory and winner’s speech, the WTA couldn’t have asked for a better response to Moore. While she didn’t win the tournament, Serena raised the level of play in Indian Wells and gave the women’s draw the gravitas it had lacked in her absence—it took her, the biggest American tennis star, to do that, not Federer or Nadal.

In the end, Serena's words in defense of women’s tennis were a fitting way for her 2016 story at Indian Wells to end. They gave her a chance to take another stand.