Once upon a time, Grand Slam finals were familiar territory for Victoria Azarenka. In 2012 and 2013, she’d won two in Melbourne and lost two in New York. Azarenka then was only 24 years old, certain she’d return to Arthur Ashe Stadium for another title match quite soon.
Speaking after the 2013 US Open final, Azarenka said, “So I'm just gonna go back out and work my ass off, you know, to go and fight hard again, to put myself in this opportunity again.”
She probably didn’t think it would take seven years.
On Thursday night, for the first time in 11 Grand Slam meetings, including those two US Open finals, Azarenka beat Serena Williams at a major. The 31-year-old took just under two hours to win this semifinal by the revealing and remarkable score of 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. On Saturday afternoon, she’ll get another opportunity when she faces Naomi Osaka in the final, each player seeking her third Grand Slam singles title.
As you’d expect from someone that has been through childbirth, injuries and a custody battle, Azarenka views this trip to a Grand Slam final differently than her prior efforts.
“Seven years ago, after I won the Australian Open and stuff, and playing kind of consistently with good results, it was kind of—I wouldn't say expected, but kind of expected for me to be in the final,” she said.“I don't think that was the case this year. But it feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me, yeah. It feels nice, nicer.”
The Azarenka who began this match was 180 degrees removed from the fire-breathing dragon that handily beat Elise Mertens on Wednesday night. Two double-faults in the opening game paved the way for Williams to break Azarenka’s serve, hold easily and earn a second break. Besides poor serving, Azarenka moved sluggishly, constantly late off both sides, doing little to disturb Williams. By the time the 34-minute first set was over, Williams had hit 12 winners to just four for Azarenka.
Williams subsequently commenced the second set with a love hold and reached break point—at this early stage, ostensibly a match point versus the best women’s server in tennis history.
“I started really strong,” said Williams. “Then she just kept fighting. She just changed and started playing better and better. Maybe I took a little too much off the gas pedal at some point.”
Even though Williams netted a backhand return, Azarenka eventually holding for 1-all, it was hard at this stage to see the match turning around. But it did, at once subtly and emphatically.
Nuance came in the form of a new aspect of Azarenka’s intensity. Though her competitive firepower has never been doubted, there were times when she rode emotion like a rollercoaster. Of late, though, Azarenka has been far more tranquil. On changeovers she shuts her eyes, summoning up memories of the way Arthur Ashe had maintained composure during his 1975 Wimbledon win over another fiery competitor, Jimmy Connors.
Reflecting after this evening’s match, Azarenka announced a project quite rare for a tennis player, one that warrants a longer look at her comments and even what they might say about life during this unprecedented time for the entire planet.
“I'm going to tell you guys,” she said. “I'm working on this show interviewing people. You are always interviewing me. I switched the role interviewing people, so, I had this very interesting discussion with one of the people. I'm not going to reveal it right now—about neutral mentality. That was kind of an interesting point.
“When s___ happens to you, you're like, Oh, let's be positive, let's be positive, it's sometimes impossible to be positive. So being neutral, just not going into a negativity is very useful. It's very simple. It's very hard to do because it's constant work, but it's very, very useful. I feel like I started there. Then I started to shift into a better energy.”
Likely aided by her new approach to competition, Azarenka’s pace, depth and accuracy improved significantly in the second set. With Williams serving at 2-2, 15-30, Azarenka rifled two crosscourt backhand winners to break serve and swiftly held at love. From there, the texture of the match completely changed. Serving at 4-3, 30-15, Azarenka fielded one hard Williams drive after another, closing out a 21-ball rally with a forehand winner. She went on to win that game with an ace and then closed out the set on Williams’ serve with a snappy backhand down-the-line winner.
But as hundreds of opponents have seen all too often, momentum in a third set versus Williams is rarely meaningful. Serving at 0-1, Williams went up 40-15, only to lose the next two points—and in the process, hurt her left Achilles badly enough to require a trainer visit.
“It wasn't much,” said Williams. “I just was stretching. Like, I ran for a shot. Off that first step that I took, it was a long point… It just overstretched. It was pretty intense. Then that was that.”
Azarenka broke and held, taking a 3-0 lead with a sharp ace to the ad court corner. Two games later, serving at 3-1, 15-30, more furious shots from Williams, the point only concluded with an Azarenka let cord winner. Like a resolute football team, Azarenka continued to move the chains.
After 10 unforced errors in the first set, Azarenka only made seven in the next two. She went up 4-1, then 5-2, absorbing the trademark ferocious Williams counterattack.
There came the moment of truth. Serving at 5-3, 30-15, Azarenka double-faulted. This, of course, has long been the stage when Williams turns the tables. But on this occasion, Azarenka pinpointed a 100 m.p.h. service winner down the T. On match point, another big serve, an untouchable delivery, 93 m.p.h. into the corner. Williams challenged. Called good. In a non-pandemic world, a grand hug. Here, a kindly racquet tap and a smile.
“She's moving well,” said Williams. “She's playing well. I mean, she knows my game really well. We always have really good battles.”
Surely, this had been one of the most emotional matches of Azarenka’s career, an evening where it would have been easy to feel good about having reached the semifinal and then been steamrolled by a great opponent. But through it all, the emotional spikes of prior Azarenka battles had vanished. She was queried following the match: “When you're in the changeovers and your eyes are closed, what do you see when you're sitting there? What's going through your mind?”
The reply: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That's my goal. That's my goal, is just nothing.”
Azarenka might see it all differently should the chance to win the US Open be near at hand. Or maybe she won’t. Meet the new Vika. Not the same as the old Vika.