NEW YORK—Victoria Azarenka had come a long way in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday night. The Belarusian, as infamous among fans for her shriek as she is famous for her No. 1 ranking, had begun her final against Serena Williams as neither the favorite to win, nor the favorite in the American crowd’s hearts. She had weathered the expected first-set storm from Serena, and then surprised everyone—and turned the audience to her side—by fighting back to win the second set. Serving at 4-3 in the third, at a moment when it appeared that she might crack, Vika had saved a break point by putting a forehand on the back of the baseline. Now she was up 5-3, four points from the U.S. Open title. She had Serena reeling.
The game went to 30-30. As Vika walked to the deuce court to receive serve, she snuck a look up at her coach, Sam Sumyk, who was a few feet away. They both knew that this was it. Win two points and the Open was hers. Win two points and she would beat Serena Williams.
The two players rallied, and Serena hit a ball fairly deep to Azarenka’s forehand. This has never been Azarenka’s favorite shot, but she had worked hard to improve it over the last two years, and that improvement had been a big part of her rise to No. 1. She had hit the most spectacular winner of the match, and sent a buzz up and down the arena, with a running forehand in the second set. Now, though, so close to the finish line, her arm wasn’t quite as free as she swung. Azarenka muscled the ball, didn’t catch it cleanly, and put it into the net. She had come a long way, into uncharted territory, but she wouldn’t go any farther. That shot, the forehand, the old weakness, would wobble just enough in the last three games to keep her from the biggest win of her career. Serena won 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
If Vika was sailing in uncharted waters in those final games, Serena Williams was, in a sense, returning home. For the last two months, everything had come easily for her. She had been utterly dominant at the Olympics and in her first six matches at the Open. The old lapses and funks and errors had vanished; her game had never been so sharp and consistent, so immaculate. There had been no need for the back-from-the-brink comebacks that she had become famous for over the years. Maybe, though, it had all come a little too easily. Azarenka was the first woman Serena faced at the Open who could absorb her power and throw a little of it back at her. When Serena was broken to open the second set, the errors began to flow—she smothered her forehand; over-amped, she went for too much on her backhand; she stopped moving her feet and hit balls standing straight up; she even struggled with her legendarily reliable serve. As the mistakes mounted, so did her agitation. In the third game of the set, Serena was called (correctly) for a foot-fault. When she finally held serve, she shot the offending line judge a death stare as she walked to the sideline. Now this was the old Serena, the imperfect Serena, the battling Serena, the one the Open crowd knew so well.
In the end, Serena did what she’s done so many times in the past, and what no other champion has ever done so well: She stopped missing when it mattered the most. By the middle of the third set, Williams could barely keep a ball in the court—at 3-3, she double-faulted and was broken at love. But from 3-5 down, when she couldn’t afford to miss anymore, she didn’t. Rather than go for winners immediately, she worked the ball cross-court, changed up for the down the line when she had the chance, and waited for an obviously nervous Azarenka to miss. It was enough.
Afterward, Serena said that it was a matter of doing what athletes always say they need to do: Take it one game at a time. Asked how she “rescued” herself, she said, “Whew, I don’t know. At 30-30 [at 3-5], I figured I could serve that out and just make her serve for it. It’s the least I could have done. I wanted to at least hold my serve. Obviously I never give up. I never, never quit. I have come back so many times in so many matches. I wasn’t too nervous. I just thought that if I could get to the next game. It was always the next game.”
From a dramatic standpoint, this was the best women's U.S Open final in...I don't know long, but it's been a while. The quality was also high—it’s hard to remember two women hitting harder at each other—though it wasn’t a classic from that point of view. As well as Azarenka hung with Serena from the baseline, it was on the American’s racquet the whole way. Serena finished with 44 winners and 45 unforced errors to 13 and 28 respectively for Azarenka, and she hit 13 aces to Vika’s none. The win caps what Mary Carillo called, with deliberate understatement, a “snappy summer” for Williams: Wimbledon, Olympic gold, and the U.S. Open are all hers. This is her 15th Grand Slam title—“15, so cool,” Serena said—putting her two behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and it gives her an Open title in three separate decades.
Williams was, as you might expect, all smiles in her press conference afterward, which she attended in short black shorts and a black leather jacket. She said she was “thrilled” and “excited” and ready to take a few “deep breaths.” What was most striking to me, though, was what she said when she was asked to compare her 30-year-old self to the 19-year-old who won here in 1999.
“Gosh,” Williams answered, “we both have so much to look forward to. I feel like even though I’m 30, I feel so young and I’ve never felt as fit and more excited and more hungry.”
You might not think that those would be words that Victoria Azarenka, or any other women’s tennis player, would be happy to hear. But in Vika’s case, you might be wrong. After the match Azarenka said of Serena, “I truly admire her as a person, as a tennis player. I feel like, it goes beyond just a tennis player when you connect with somebody....Every time I play Serena, it pushes me to be better, to improve, to move forward. To have these types of players at the top of the sport, it’s priceless.”
While Serena showed her champion’s mettle on Sunday night, Azarenka also showed us the best of herself. The Ashe crowd was mostly behind Williams, but I had also never heard an audience anywhere cheer so loudly for Azarenka. She hasn’t been a popular No. 1 so far, but maybe this tournament will be a turning point for her. She was part of three of the best matches of the event—her wins over Sam Stosur and Maria Sharapova, and her loss in the final. She must have won some new fans with the way she fought Serena, and the way she fought back tears in a classy post-match speech.
Asked about the crowd, Azarenka said, “It’s amazing, absolutely. I feel like I’m in a place that I belong. It’s something that you get, that energy, you know, that something special, all eyes on you waiting to see what you’re going to do, it’s incredible. No words can describe it.”
Azarenka was at a loss for words at that moment, but what she said in her press conference was moving for its honesty, perspective, and lack of self-pity. On TV, Boris Becker said that if he had served for a Grand Slam and lost, he “would be sleepless for a year.” But from Vika there were no tears, no sighs, no sarcasm, no despair; just the feeling that she had done her best and was satisfied to have been part of something special. She even managed to laugh.
“Being so close,” Vika said, “it hurts deeply to know you didn’t get it. But at this moment, I have no regrets. It’s time to realize what happened today. You know, it was a great match.”
Azarenka came a long way in Ashe on Sunday night, and though she didn’t end up holding the trophy, she also came away a winner.
“I feel proud, but sad,” she said.
Emphasis on proud, Vika.