We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
Motherhood was one of the themes of this year’s US Open, and the storyline peaked with this semifinal between Serena Williams (mother to Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr.) and Victoria Azarenka (mother to Leo). Could one of these two women go on to become the first mom to win the Open?
The answer to that question would be no. What Serena and Vika could do, however, was stage the most intensely contested one hour and 56 minutes of tennis of 2020.
Each of these woman had her own compelling storyline. Serena was trying to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title and tie Margaret Court for the all-time record. With six of the WTA’s Top 10 players absent, this event had looked like a golden opportunity for her, and Serena had fought tooth and nail to advance this far. She had won her previous three matches in three sets.
For Azarenka, the narrative was about resurgence. The 31-year-old former No. 1 had returned from the COVID-19 lockdowns with a new coach, a new eagerness, and a refreshed and speedier game. Unseeded at the Western and Southern Open, she had won the tournament; unseeded again at the US Open, she had dropped just one set on her way to the semifinals.
“It feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me,” Azarenka said.
Now the question was: How well would Vika’s happier self hold up against Serena? The American was 18-4 against her, and she had made a habit of putting a stop to her Grand Slam runs in the past.
After 45 minutes, it looked as if Serena was well on her way to improving that record to 19-4, and that the new Azarenka would go out the same way the old one had. Serena showed up, as ESPN’s Chris Fowler said, “in fifth gear.” Firing forehands, backhands, running passing shots, and 120 m.p.h. serves for winners, she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Serena’s dominance continued through the early games of the second set as well. She held for 2-1 with a crosscourt forehand winner from well behind the baseline.
But that was as far as Serena’s opening gambit took her. At 2-2, 15-30, Azarenka stepped into a return and belted a backhand winner to earn two break points. From there, the match swung in her direction. Azarenka hung onto her serve at 4-3, and broke again for the set with another backhand winner.
Azarenka was flying high—“bopping,” as she put it—to start the third, and soon Serena was struggling to move at all. In the second game, she strained her left Achilles’ while trying to flag down an Azarenka backhand winner. Quickly down 0-3, Serena could have waved the white flag. Instead she made a stand; she’d come too far at this event to do anything else. She gritted her teeth, upped the pace on her shots, upped the decibel level on her grunts, and dared Azarenka to close her out. The new Vika was up to the task. Serving for the match at 5-3, she overcame a nervy double fault and finished with an ace.
“I knew I had to get into the rallies, I needed to step up with my aggressivity, play a little smarter, play a little bit more width of the court and bring the intensity up,” said Azarenka, who had lost US Open finals to Serena in 2012 and 2013, both times in three sets. “I felt the intensity was important today. I’m glad that worked out for me.”
Alas, it wouldn’t work out for Vika two days later, when she would lose to Naomi Osaka, by the same 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 scores, in the final. But nothing all season would be quite as intense as Azarenka’s two-hour fight with her fellow mom.