For it gave an extra day’s rest and a suitable weekend climax to the two women who could lay claim to being the best in their sport this year, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. And by the end of their thrilling final, they had proved it.
For Azarenka in particular, the chance to recharge her batteries was especially valuable, for she had withstood two of the toughest opponents in the competition in her quarter and semi-final matches: defending champion Sam Stosur and this year’s French champion, Maria Sharapova. She lost a set to each of them in a demanding pair of matches totalling more than five hours.
Now she faced the ultimate challenge, for Williams, a three-time former champion in New York, was on a run of form to strike fear into the heart. First she won Wimbledon, then Stanford, and next Olympic gold, establishing a run of 42 wins from her last 44 matches. She had also run through the US draw without dropping set—and only 19 games—and had taken only two hours to win her last two matches. She was, in short, favourite to win her fourth US title 13 years after she won her first, as a teenager in 1999.
So Azarenka’s task, to beat the queen of Queens—indeed the queen of 21st century tennis—was at best unenviable, weighed down, too, by a nine-to-one advantage to Williams in their previous meetings. This year alone, Azarenka had lost to Williams in the final of Madrid and in the semis of both Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Yet the tall, increasingly confident, constantly improving woman from Belarus had been No1 for the most of the year, won the first Grand Slam of 2012 in Australia—part of an unbroken run of 26 match wins—and played exceptional tennis to beat a Sharapova. She also had a WTA-best 32-2 record on hard courts this year.
It made Williams’s prediction of the final more than simply words: “I feel like I’m going up against who I personally think [is] the most consistent and the best player this year, being Victoria Azarenka…It will be a good challenge for me.”
The challenge began under a sky as blue as the court, the low-slung sun picking out the blazing yellow of Azarenka’s top and Williams’s head band.
Williams opened with three straight serve winners and closed the first game with her 51st ace of the tournament, but Azarenka, showed no sign of intimidation. She immediately attacked the net on her own serve, but in a flash, Williams was at break point with a backhand winning lob. A backhand return of serve took her straight to 2-0.
Azarenka stood by her tactics, though, and continued to bustle on serve and rush the net to get on the board at 3-1, and she stayed in touch through two more games.
But Williams was about to up the ante. Backhand winners, a smash, an 85mph return of serve, and the American had three break points. Her backhand scorched through again for another winner and she took the set, 6-2.
Williams had made 17 winners to Azarenka’s two—an indication not just of her attack but of her defensive skills. Not since 1995 had the women’s final extended to three sets, and on this evidence, Williams had no intention of doing so today.
Azarenka had other ideas. She continued to attack and earned two break points on the opening Williams serve. Against the odds, Williams served her first double fault of the match and Azarenka had the break.
The entire Arthur Ashe crowd held its breath when Williams was called for a foot fault—it was such a call that brought to a premature end, through default, her semi-final here in 2009—but she made not a sound and held.
Still Azarenka’s attack and terrific defensive pickups kept her in the points and drew still more errors from Williams. A double fault brought up more break points, which Williams saved, but then a wild forehand conceded the break at the fourth attempt, and soon Azarenka was serving, 5-2. Sure enough, the reversal of fortunes was completed, another 6-2 set in just four minutes more than the first set.
It was, then, Azarenka who went into the decider with considerable momentum, and Williams looked even more unsettled when she went 0-30 on her opening serve. She held, but these were decisive moments, especially as Azarenka also found herself facing two break points. She too resisted the pressure, and looked as sharp as mustard in picking up the Williams serve and pounding it inch-perfect to the baseline.
Her offensive play forced more errors from Williams, and a 34th, a backhand pulled wide, gave Azarenka the break. The Belarusian now seemed to be working in fast-forward, full of energy, rushing the net, scampering across the baseline, whipping her right arm with abandon.
But Williams began to summon something from the depths as, with both women going for their shots, the match cranked up to new heights. Almost inevitably, Williams made the break back, and in a similar style to her first break—a backhand lob followed by a backhand cross-court winner.
And as she sealed the fifth game with an ace, the crowd could barely contain its excitement, entirely caught up in the growing intensity of this battle.
Suddenly in the seventh, Williams serve again let her down, missing three first deliveries on the trot to go 0-40 down. They stood at 73 points apiece, but the upper hand was firmly with Azarenka and she broke for what looked like the conclusive lead.
Serving at 3-5, the Williams error count hit 44 but a 40th winner kept her in the match though not for much longer, it seemed. Azarenka stepped up to serve for the match but, as cool as you like, Williams thumped four huge returns of serve to break her, then held serve to snatch the lead, 6-5.
It was, of course, not over: Azarenka had served solidly throughout and now resisted two deuces. But it was that vicious Williams backhand return of serve, for one last time, that hit home on match point and she seized her 15th Grand Slam title a full 13 years after winning her first, and in the very same place.
Williams has, not for the first time, broken new boundaries: the first 30-year-old to win the US Open since Martina Navratilova in 1987; the first, since she last did it in 2002, to win back-to-back Wimbledon and US titles; the greatest number of years between a first and last victory in the US tournament’s history; one of only three to win this title and Olympic gold in the same year.
Remember, too, that she missed an entire year—until last summer—with injury and then life-threatening illness. Yet now, approaching her 31st birthday, she looks as passionate and powerful as she did in winning her first title. No wonder Azarenka—showing great grace and composure after losing such a memorable final—could only say: “I’m just honoured to stand with such a champion here…stepping off this court today, I will have no regrets.”
Her next Grand Slam title is, without a doubt, just around the corner, and she will leave North America with a whole continent of new admirers.
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