Serena & Vika: It Takes Two to Tango
We weren't quite sure what we were going to get in this U.S. Open women's final.
Oh, we knew we'd get a good-to-great Serena Williams, just as we have for most of the world #1's twenty previous appearances in grand slam finals, going all the way back to her first as a 17-year old at the Open in 1999. It was the world #2 that we weren't quite so sure about.
As it turned out, we needn't have worried.
Waiting to watch the opening moments of this match was much like opening a present and wondering what we'd find inside -- something amazing... or a lump of coal. Essentially, in a rarity when it comes to match-ups involving Serena, it was up to Victoria Azarenka whether or not this was going to be a paint-by-numbers final, as so many other U.S. Open women's championships have been over most of the last two decades until a year ago when Vika coaxed Williams into a three-set match (the first in a final at Flushing Meadows since 1995), or something far greater, and memorable. While it was hoped that the same Belarusian who served for the title in last year's final would show up on Sunday, after so many cover-your-eyes moments over the past two weeks from Azarenka it surely wasn't a certainty that her play wouldn't once again be just as ugly as the pink-and-battleship-gray dress she's been sporting throughout the tournament. But Vika believed that she could find her New York groove. That was all that mattered. And we would all be the better for it by the end of the evening, too.
But, well, Serena is still Serena. And this was still a grand slam final... and, save for a few "bad days," you generally know what that means. While the end of these proceedings was something we'd seen at the conclusion of many others before it, rarely have we seen Williams have to jump through the hoops she did against Azarenka in order to get to that familiar place at the end of one of the four biggest two-week stretches of every year.
The beautiful devil was in the details.
From the start, when the players were introduced on Arthur Ashe Stadium court, the crowd was for Serena. It wasn't surprising, even considering the sixteen-time major winner's oft-checked past at this event. New York (& the U.S.) loves winners, and Serena, while becoming more and more beloved with each passing season, is first and foremost that. But none of that bothered Azarenka. She was content with having her play do her talking for her, and for whatever resulting respect she got for that to arrive whenever it would arrive. Or not. It didn't matter that she might once again have to win over anyone, though much of the old "Vika aversion" HAS dissipated quite a bit since the Melbourne mess that had media and fans sniping at her every move earlier this year. While the Aussie "fans" might not be able to say the same, Azarenka has shown over the course of this season, and the last two seasons, just how much SHE has matured, both as a player and a personality on the WTA tour.
And it was about to show. Big time.
As one sort of suspected might be the case two days ago, it didn't take all that long for it become clear that the scratchy, sometimes-haphazard play that Azarenka had displayed throughout this tournament wasn't going to rule the day in the final. Although, with the wind swirling around inside Ashe, it took a couple of games for that to be fully apparent.
Things had a familiar look in the opening moments. After Azarenka had to pull back and let her toss bounce after a fan in the stands yelled out in the middle of her service motion, she proceeded to fall down love/40 in Game #1. She followed up with an ace, only to see Williams' backhand winner open the match with a service break. But after switching sides of the court after one game, Serena didn't have any better luck to the right of the chair umpire as Vika had had. Having trouble adjusting to the sometimes-swirling wind, she cautiously pulled back her big game, then handed the break back to Azarenka with a long backhand error.
As an exasperated Williams was talking to herself -- and to Oracene, Venus, Patrick, Sasha and all the rest in her player's box -- about the difficulty of the conditions, Azarenka simply kept her head down and dealt with them with the sort of focus she would have been incapable of when she was just a "crazy kid." While Serena's shots sailed long and her serve wasn't as effective as usual, Azarenka was the more composed of the two, keeping her shots in the court and actually improving upon her sometimes-woeful service stats through the first six rounds of this Open. After pulling Williams to the net with one of her trusty "French touch" drop shots, Azarenka shot up a lob and allowed the wind to hold it in the court. When it landed safely near the baseline she'd held for 4-3, then she did the same two games later for 5-4 after moving Serena around the court before sticking a forehand winner into the corner in quite possibly her best hold of serve (of which there seemed to have been so few) in the entire tournament.
After Williams' follow-up nine-and-a-half-minute serve game included both a double-fault and a foot fault (one of several she had on the night, bringing back memories of her controversy-marred semifinal against Kim Clijsters in '09), and Azarenka pulled off another perfectly executed drop shot on game point, Vika got to within two points of the set, at deuce, only to see Williams up the aggression of her game (possibly fired up by the drop shot, as CBS's Mary Carillo suggested?) and hold with an ace for 5-5. Williams' surge continued one game later, as she came back from a 40/15 deficit to reach break point with a crosscourt forehand winner and forced an error with a deep return on break point. Suddenly, serving with a 6-5 lead after having previously been often frustrated while Azarenka had simultaneously maintained her calm, Williams reeled off eight straight points, holding at love to take the set 7-5.
It was a last minute "save" by Williams, though it WAS the closest any player had come to taking a set off Serena over the past two weeks. As Williams' serve continued to improve, and she got "that look" in her eye that we've seen so often in grand slam finals, the tight nature of the 1st set looked as if it might be the closest thing that Azarenka would get to a "call to glory" moment in the match. As Serena stretched the streak to ten points, broke in the opening game of the 2nd set, then held at love for 2-0, it seemed a reasonable conclusion.
But it was a wrong one.
After holding for 2-1, Azarenka got to double break point on Williams' serve, only to see Serena utilize her big shot to stave off the Belarusian's challenge and hold. It appeared it would be Vika's last stand, especially after her own three-double fault game followed, as she squandered a 30/love lead and was broken for 4-1, going down a double-break in the set. While the stage was set for it, Azarenka wasn't ready to fold like a cheap Italian suit... err, I mean like Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals.
Instead, she broke Williams for 4-2, then held in back-to-back service games. From there, one year after Azarenka had served for the match in the '12 Open final, Williams twice served for the match herself, at 5-4 and 6-5. Williams got to within two points of the title, but both times Azarenka managed a break, forcing a tie-break. There, Williams went up a mini-break at 3-1, only to see Vika hold steady and Serena once more have trouble keeping her game clean in the wind. Azarenka took a 6-4 lead, but failed to put away the set. At 6-6, she fired a good into-the-body second serve that was sprayed by a surprised Williams to get to SP #3, then watched Williams' long backhand error hand her an 8-6 tie-break and send a U.S. Open final between the two of them into a third set for the second straight year.
The measure of what Azarenka accomplished in the comeback from the brink of defeat is astounding considering the opponent. It's just not the sort of thing that happens to Williams in a slam final -- it's what Williams often DOES in a slam final. Remember, in the 2nd set, Vika managed to win a set off Serena after being down a double-break at 4-1, having Williams twice serve for the title and come within a scant two points of securing Open win #5, then she threw in a tie-break win after being down a mini-break at 3-1, too. You know, just for the heck of it. It was the stuff of myth. The same sort of grit and determination that turned Justine Henin into "La Petit Taureau" at this very tournament ten years ago in the semifinals against Clijsters en route to the '03 title. It seemed as if this was going to be the night that Azarenka, on September 8th between 6:30 and 7 p.m. in New York, transformed herself into something else... something more... something greater.
All that might still happen one day, and the roots of what Azarenka eventually becomes, both in her own eyes, as well as those of her admirers (Backspinner raises hand) and the rest of the sport, could very well be traced back to this night. For while Vika didn't finish the night the same way she'd extended it, as much as she proved her new-found maturity in defending her Australian Open crown eight months ago, she might have given everyone a preview of the truly great champion she could soon become in her ultimately losing effort in this U.S. Open final. In the end, this was Serena's night, as her march toward history added one more highlight. But it could also be seen as the day that a "new" Vika -- newly admired, newly respected -- was conceived, too.
In the 3rd set, Williams displayed the form that had put her in position to win a seventeenth slam crown tonight. When Azarenka wavered just a bit, double-faulting at deuce to fully lose at 40/15 lead in Game #4, then following up a wonderful break point save via a drop shot and face-to-face-at-the-net battle with Williams with another double-fault on BP #2, Serena pounced. Up 3-1, she chose the next game to open up her weapons case. A lob winner was followed up by a 126-mph ace, then another ace to hold at love for 4-1. A deep return forced an Azarenka error to secure a break for 5-1. Serving for the match for a third time, Serena simply stretched to get her racket on a seeming volley winner from Azarenka... and then saw the destined-to-go-long shot be held up by the wind and land in the backcourt for a winner.
Now, everything was going Williams' way. She'd finally manged to tame Mother Nature and use it for her own means. It only took about two and three-quarter hours.
An Azarenka missed return shot gave Serena her first match point. Two points later, Vika's long return unleashed a spirited Williams celebration of her 7-5/6-7(6)/6-1 victory. As she jumped around the court in a fashion reminiscent of her sister Venus' post-Wimbledon win exuberance in coming back from match point down against Lindsay Davenport in the final in '05, Serena was embraced by the crowd as not only a seventeen-time slam champ, but also a five-time winner of her nation's grand slam.
And, in many ways, Vika was embraced, too (and not just because Serena told everyone she was a great player and person -- and actually seemed to really mean it). As she danced after her sometimes-ugly performances over the past weeks, she was able to smile after her defeat here. Even with the reality of just a second-best ending to her '13 Open run staring her in the face, it was apparent that she knew that she should be proud of her accomplishment. She can still desire more, but she doesn't have to destroy herself for not getting it all on this particular night. She gained a great deal at this slam. She learned how to "find a way" to reach a slam final while playing a level of tennis that was, frankly, beneath her, and she knows that, after seasons past in which she decidedly could NOT do it, she now can take a Serena punch and not only live to tell about it, but deliver some stinging shots of her own in the aftermath. By the end, even her oddly-fitting dress was looking better and better as the evening hour arrived.
Vika Azarenka is not quite yet a finished product. But, boy, is she getting REALLY close.
We already know what Williams is: quite simply, a truly awesome big match creature of habit who, even as she becomes the winningest thirtysomething in women's slam history (w/ four titles), is still able to produce shock and awe when she DOESN'T totally put away an opponent. At nearly 32, her march -- toward Evert and Navratilova, and maybe Graf and Court, too -- isn't slowing down one bit. In fact, her biggest obstacle to her grandest goals might just have been staring back at her from the other side of the net tonight.
Over the course of 2013, we've wondered whether we finally has a head-to-head match-up worthy of attention on the WTA tour. After Doha and Cincinnati, we had an inkling. Now, as the women's action at this year's U.S. Open comes to a close, now we know that, yes, we finally do have just that.
Bring on 2014.
=DAY 14 NOTES=
...Serena's win means that she sets a new record as the biggest prize money winner at a single event, adding a bonus of $1 million dollars to the Open's $2.6m purse for having also been champion of the U.S. Open Series.
Of course, Rafa Nadal takes his chance at pulling off the same feat on Monday.
...in juniors, both champions came back from a set down to win titles. And both hail from Croatia, too.
#2 Ana Konjuh added a U.S. Open Girls crown to her Australian Open trophy from January with a 3-6/6-4/7-6(6) win over American wild card Tornado Alicia Black. Black served at 5-4 in the deciding tie-break, but lost both points, then saw Konjuh win on her second match point.
In the Boys, #4 Borna Coric defeated Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis 3-6/6-3/6-1. Coric joins Marin Cilic ('05 RG) as the only Croatian boy to claim a slam singles crown. Kokkinakis was also runner-up at this year's AO.
...Leander Paes & Radek Stepanek made their semifinal win over the Bryan twins count, taking the Men's Doubles final over Alejandro Peya & Bruno Soares. It's Paes fourteenth overall slam crown, and Stepanek's second.
...in the Wheelchair finals, 23-year Dutch #2-seed Aniek Van Koot came back from a set down to defeat top-seeded German Sabine Ellerbrock, 3-6/6-2/7-6(3), in a match-up of the women who have taken over where (Hall of Fame-bound? Has there ever been a WC athlete elected to the Tennis Hall?) Van Koot's countrywoman, Esther Vergeer, left off. They've shared the three slams contested this season, with Van Koot defeating the 37-year old Ellerbrock in the AO final, then Ellerbrock coming back to defeat her in the RG semifinals en route to her own title in Paris.
So, Van Koot now has two titles... only nineteen to go to catch Vergeer.
In the Men's, the same two men who met in the previous two slam singles finals met yet again. In Melbourne, Shingo Kunieda of Japan defeated Frenchman Stephane Houdet. In Paris, Houdet took out Kunieda. In the rubber match in NYC, it was the 42-year old Houdet (the #2 seed) who won out over the top-seeded Kunieda, already a ten-time slam champ at age 29, 6-2/6-4. It's Houdet's third career slam singles crown.
By the way, three years ago it was Houdet who ended Kunieda's 106-match winning streak (nice, but not Vergeerian).
QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC CAN (Int'l $235K/carpet indoor)
12 Final: Flipkens d. Hradecka
12 Doubles Final: Maria/Mladenovic d. Rosolska/Watson
13 Top Seeds: Flipkens/Mladenovic
#1 Flipkens d. #4 Mattek-Sands
#5 Bouchard d. #3 Safarova
#5 Bouchard d. #1 Flipkens
...the crowd favorite over the top-seeded defending champ.
TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN (Int'l $235K/hard court outdoor)
12 Final: Begu d. Vekic
12 Doubles Final: Kania/Pekhova d. Chakvetadze/Dolonc
13 Top Seeds: Jovanovski/Tsurenko
#6 Begu d. Glushko
#8 Shvedova d. #4 Vekic
#8 Shvedova d. #6 Begu
...isn't it about time that a Kazakh won a tour singles title?
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Serena Williams/USA def. #2 Victoria Azarenka/BLR 7-5/6-7(6)/6-1
*MEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#5 Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) def. #8 Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS) 6-7/6-1/6-4
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#4 Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) def. #2 Peya/Soares (AUT/BRA) 6-1/6-3
*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
#7 Hlavackova/Mirnyi (CZE/BLR) def. Spears/S.Gonzalez (USA/MEX) 7-6/6-3
*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#2 Ana Konjuh/CRO def. (WC) Tornado Alicia Black/USA 3-6/6-4/7-6
*BOYS SINGLES FINAL*
#4 Borna Coric/CRO def. Thanasi Kokkinakis/AUS 3-6/6-3/6-1
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Krejcikova/Siniakova (CZE/CZE) def. #3 Bencic/Sorribes Tormo (SUI/ESP) 6-3/6-4
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
Majchrzak/Redlicki (POR/USA) def. Halys/Silva (FRA/POR) 6-3/6-4
*WOMEN'S WC SINGLES FINAL*
#2 Aniek Van Koot/NED def. #1 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER 3-6/6-2/7-6(3)
*MEN'S WC SINGLES FINAL*
#2 Stephane Houdet/FRA def. #1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN 6-2/6-4
*WOMEN'S WC DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Griffioen/Van Koot (NED/NED) def. #2 Ellerbrock/Kamiji (GER/JPN) 6-3/6-4
*MEN'S WC DOUBLES FINAL*
Jeremiasz/Scheffers (FRA/NED) def. Fernandez/Gerard (ARG/BEL) 6-0/4-6/6-3
*ALL-TIME SLAM SINGLES TITLES - WOMEN*
12...Billie Jean King
[slam singles titles - active]
17...Serena Williams, USA
7...Venus Williams, USA
4...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
[total slam titles - active - singles/doubles/mixed]
32...SERENA WILLIAMS (17-13-2)
22...Venus Williams (7-13-2)
11...Lisa Raymond (0-6-5)
10...Cara Black (0-5-5)
*CHAMPIONS AT RECENT SLAMS*
AO: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
RG: Maria Sharapova, RUS
WI: Serena Williams, USA
US: Serena Williams, USA
AO: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
RG: Serena Williams, USA
WI: Marion Bartoli, FRA
US: Serena Williams, USA
*SERENA vs. IN SLAM FINALS*
8...vs. Venus Williams (6-2)
3...vs. Maria Sharapova (2-1)
2...vs. VICTORIA AZARENKA (2-0)
1...vs. Lindsay Davenport (1-0)
1...vs. Justine Henin (1-0)
1...vs. Martina Hingis (1-0)
1...vs. Jelena Jankovic (1-0)
1...vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (1-0)
1...vs. Dinara Safina (1-0)
1...vs. Vera Zvonareva (1-0)
1...vs. Samantha Stosur (0-1)
*CAREER SLAM FINALS - ACTIVE*
21...SERENA WILLIAMS (17-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
8...Maria Sharapova (4-4)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
4...VICTORIA AZARENKA (2-2)
3...Li Na (1-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
*WOMEN's SLAM TITLES AFTER AGE 30*
4...Serena Williams (2 at 30, 2 at 31)
3...Martina Navratilova (2 at 30, 1 at 33)
3...Margaret Court (2 at 30, 1 at 31)
2...Billie Jean King (30 & 31)
2...Chris Evert (30 & 31)
1...Virginia Wade (31)
1...Ann Haydon Jones (30)
*SERENA WILLIAMS at THE SLAMS - Rd.-by-Rd.*
52-1...1st Round ['12 RG: Razzano]
51-1...2nd Round ['98 AO: Venus]
21-3...Semifinals [Venus '00, Henin-H. '03, Clijsters '09]
17-4...Finals [Venus '01, Sharapova '04, Venus '08, Stosur '11]
[Consecutive WTA Finals]
6...Serena Williams, February-June (5-1)
4...Maria Sharapova, March-May (2-2)
4...SERENA WILLIAMS, July-September (3-1)
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA, July-September (2-1)
[WTA Final Match-Ups]
4...Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
3...Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova (SW 3-0)
2...Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Dominika Cibulkova (1-1)
[2012-13 WTA Final Match-Ups]
6...Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka
5...Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova
4...Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova
**RECENT GIRLS SLAM CHAMPIONS**
AO: Ksenia Pervak, RUS
RG: Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
WI: Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, THA
US: Heather Watson, GBR
AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ashleigh Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
RG: Annika Beck, GER
WI: Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
US: Samantha Crawford, USA
AO: Ana Konjuh, CRO
RG: Belinda Bencic, SUI
WI: Belinda Bencic, SUI
US: Ana Konjuh, CRO
**MEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONS**
[recent U.S. Opens]
2002 Mahesh Bhupathi & Max Mirnyi
2003 Jonas Bjorkman & Todd Woodbridge
2004 Mark Knowles & Daniel Nestor
2005 Bob & Mike Bryan
2006 Martin Damm & Leander Paes
2007 Simon Aspelin & Julian Knowle
2008 Bob & Mike Bryan
2009 Lukas Dlouhy & Leander Paes
2010 Bob & Mike Bryan
2011 Jurgen Melzer & Philipp Petzschner
2012 Bob & Mike Bryan
2013 Leander Paes & Radek Stepanek
TOP QUALIFIER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
Co-TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA & #2 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Chanel Simmonds/RSA d. (WC) Taylor Townsend/USA 2-6/6-2/7-5
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - (Q) Vicky Duval/USA d. #11 Samantha Stosur/AUS 5-7/6-4/6-4
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF/Doub.): 4th Rd. - #18 Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP d. #8 Angelique Kerber/GER 4-6/6-4/7-6(3)
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): Final - #1 Serena Williams/USA def. #2 Victoria Azarenka/BLR 7-5/6-7(6)/6-1
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: 3rd Rd. - (Q) Camila Giorgi/ITA d. #6 Caroline Wozniacki 4-6/6-4/6-2
FIRST WINNER: Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP (def. Davis/USA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #29 Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK (lost to LL Mayr-Achleitner/AUT)
UPSET QUEENS: United States
REVELATION LADIES: Italy
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia [1-4 overall, Stosur out 1st Rd, Rogowska double-bageled, only WC Barty advanced to 2nd Rd.]
CRASH & BURN: #11 Sam Stosur/AUS - '11 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Duval/USA, 17-yr. old qualifier in second career slam match, ranked #296
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Daniela Hantuchova/SVK - 0-5 in last five slams, 3rd Rd. def. (Q) Glushko/ISR, down set and 5-2 and saved four match points
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to Mladenovic/FRA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Camila Giorgi/ITA (4th Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Alison Riske/USA (4th Rd.)
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: Serena Williams/USA (in SF)
IT GIRL: Vicky Duval/USA
Ms.OPPORTUNITY: Li Na/CHN
COMEBACK PLAYER: Flavia Pennetta/ITA
BROADWAY-BOUND: Camila Giorgi/ITA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Serena Williams/USA
DOUBLES STAR: Andrea Hlavackova/CZE
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Tornado Alicia Black/USA
All for now. More tomorrow. 3Q BSA's this week.