Welcome to Underrated Week! From May 4 through 8, TENNIS.com is focusing on the most overlooked aspects of the sport, from stats to achievements to tactics, and beyond. We're also featuring 10 players because of something they do extremely well, but which isn't their signature quality. It's a series we're calling the Underrated Traits of the Greats.
A few minutes of a good old-fashioned Serena-Vika throwdown may be just what we need right now. The toe-to-toe rallies. The full-blooded swings and even-fuller-blooded grunts. The momentum shifts that luck around each corner. The way these two powerful athletes fire everything they have at each other.
Record-wise, Williams-Azarenka has been a one-sided rivalry; Serena leads it 18-4, and at one stage she beat Vika 10 times in a row. But I think the quality of so many of their matches—eight of them have gone to three sets—will only become clearer when both women have retired and we find ourselves searching for that kind of ferocity again.
When I think back on the best of Serena-Vika, the 2013 US Open final doesn’t often come to mind. Their matches at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2015 seem to be their pinnacle, and the pinnacle of women’s tennis in the 2010s in general. By contrast, the third set at Flushing Meadows, which Serena won 6-1, didn’t make for an epic finale. But rewatching the match reminded me that the first two sets were filled with the high-voltage shotmaking and swagger they customarily bring out in each other.
But it’s really the third set, in particular the start of the third set, that I want to concentrate on today. This is Underrated Week at TENNIS.com, and this is a match that showcases one of Serena’s underrated qualities: Her ability to adjust, find her groove in the middle of a match, and change a losing game into a winning one. How many times have we seen Serena start a match sluggishly, lose the first set, find her game in the second set, and close by winning the third 6-0?
Serena is justifiably known for her serve, for her power from the baseline, for her fearlessness and will to win. But she’s not well known enough for her ability to read the flow of a match and adjust in midstream. Of course, she can’t always work miracles. In last year’s Wimbledon final against Simona Halep, Serena started out way off her game, and finished way off her game 55 minutes later. But against Azarenka at the 2013 US Open, she found a way to stop the bleeding, and win her 17th Grand Slam title. Here’s a look at how she did it.
(There are two video options in this post: If you want to get a flavor of the match as a whole, I recommend the 15-minute highlight reel. If you want to see the crucial games where Serena turns things back around at the start of the third set, watch the full match video and start at the one-hour, 47-minute mark.)
For the first 80 minutes, it looked as if we were heading for a semi-routine Serena victory—hard-fought, but not a contest for the history books. Serving at 7-5, 4-3, she held at love to put herself one game from her fifth US Open title. Surely a player with her track record and big-stage experience was home free now. But as many veteran champions have discovered, having experience doesn’t necessarily make you more confident or less prone to anxiety.
If anything, you tend to get tighter as you get older, and that’s what happened to Serena here. Serving for the title at 5-4, she was broken. Serving for the title again at 6-5, she double-faulted at break point. And after going up 3-1 in the tiebreaker, she lost it 8-6.
“Yeah, I think I got a little uptight, which probably wasn’t the best thing at that moment,” Serena said. “I started to try to—I wasn’t playing very smart tennis then, so I just had to relax and not do that again.”
It took a few points for Serena to settle back down. She goes down 0-30 in her first service game in the third set, but instead of panicking or rushing or overhitting, she takes a few deep breathers, gathers herself, and reins her game in.
It starts with her serve. Rather than go for aces, she concentrates on making first balls—hard slices down the middle, flat serves into the body. Then she concentrates on giving herself more margin on her ground strokes—a little more height over the net, a little more distance from the sidelines. Of course, with Serena, even when she dials the pace back, she can still overpower most opponents, including Azarenka. At 15-30, she moves forward and hits a safe forehand winner. At 30-30, she forces an error from Azarenka with a well-struck rally ball. And she keeps hitting service winners. By the time Serena comes back from 0-30 to hold, she has the momentum again, and her second-set collapse is in the rearview mirror.
From there, Serena cautiously builds her confidence back up. At 2-1 she loops her ground strokes, and, given a chance to demolish a short ball, she guides it down the line instead. Serena’s most spectacular winners in the third set are two topspin lobs. But by the time she’s serving at 3-1, she’s back in top gear. She hits a 126-m.p.h. ace and holds at love. Two games later, she’s the champion again.
Afterward, Serena was asked if she was “deliberately taking some pace off the ball.” She danced around the answer, as if didn’t want to admit to having played it safe for a few games.
“I definitely didn’t try to hit softer,” she said, before backtracking slightly, “but maybe I did. 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, because I had a great opportunity to win already.’ So I thought, ‘You know what? I just have to relax, calm down, and play smarter tennis.’”
Serena has always had more respect for players who hit big and take risks than she has for wallboards. You could hear it in the way she praised Bianca Andreescu after the Canadian beat her in last year’s US Open final. “She does what she does best, and that’s move up to the ball, that’s hit winners, that’s play with a ton on intensity.” In that, Serena said, she and Andreescu were “really similar.”
Hitting “softer” is not in Serena’s vocabulary, but playing “smarter” is. The most famous piece of tennis advice, as articulated by Bill Tilden, is, “Never change a winning game; always change a losing one.” It’s easy to say, but to do it in middle of a US Open final, well, that takes a special talent. A 23-time Grand Slam champion talent.
More from Underrated Week
UNDERRATED TRAITS OF THE GREATS: Roger Federer—Winning ugly | Simona Halep—Boldness | Rafael Nadal—When to come to net | Sofia Kenin—Variety | Pete Sampras—Movement | Serena Williams—Plan B | Novak Djokovic—Forehand versatility | Chris Evert—Athleticism | Daniil Medvedev—Reading the room | Naomi Osaka—Return of serve