That, of course, left the top players in the draw exposed to one of the best players in the world far sooner than they would like.
As luck would have it, she fell into the path of arguably her biggest rival, Serena Williams, in the third round in Paris and, as has become the norm when these two formidable players face one another, it turned into a long, dramatic tussle over three sets.
For there are few rivalries on the women’s tour to ‘rival’ the ones on the men’s tour. None in the Open era have met more often than Novak Djokovic with Rafael Nadal, now 44 matches, or between Djokovic and Roger Federer—39.
Williams’ rivalry with sister Venus, the most played on the women’s tour, had already been repeated in the third round here at Wimbledon. The second most played rivalry between Williams and Sharapova could occur in the next round.
Before that, though, would come a 20th meeting between Williams and Azarenka—for the woman from Belarus had again fallen into Williams’ quarter.
It felt too soon, since this match-up has fast become one of the most compelling in tennis. For while the balance between Williams and Azarenka has been, on paper, a one-sided affair, there is no denying that the American’s 16-3 advantage does not reflect how closely matched the current No1 and former No1 are at the peak of their powers.
Indeed a look at their last seven matches dating back to 2013, most of them finals, show Azarenka has won two and taken Williams to three sets in three more of them. In Madrid, Azarenka had three match points before Williams edged the win, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, and then at Roland Garros, she was a set and a break up before again losing out in the third.
For all their history, though, they had only rarely met on grass, most recently in the summer of 2012: two semi-finals at Wimbledon, two wins for Williams, her fifth Wimbledon trophy and Olympic gold.
Was it a surprise, then, that this became hugely intense from the very first game?
By the third game, both women were hitting full-blooded strikes from the baseline, corner to corner, flat and fast. But if one had more intent, more zip in her strokes, it was Azarenka. She broke in the fourth game when even the strength of Williams seemed unable to contain Azarenka’s hitting.
The pressure was showing, too. In an effort to avoid the barrage of attacks on her second serve, Williams double-faulted to face two break points at 2-5, but held on, now roaring in effort in counterpoint to the chant Azarenka sets up on each strike of the ball.
Such was the volume and effort that the crowd began to laugh—as much in admiration as humour. Williams held but could not make a dent in Azarenka’s serve: 6-3, in 36 minutes.
Williams opened the second set with a love hold, and cranked it up in the fourth game, forcing Azarenka into desperate defence and some bold net attacking. It lasted six deuces and the Belarusian survived three break points to hold for 2-2,
Then it was Williams’ turn to come under fire, despite an opening 120mph ace. She held off break point, attacked Azarenka straight back, and broke for 4-2. Even so, Williams had to fight off two break points as she struggled with the pace coming from the other end, but took the set with a break and a roar, 6-2.
So once again, these two would take it to a decider, and it looked as though, just as in Paris, Williams had all the momentum when she broke and held for 3-0 with a 120mph ace. But Azarenka did not let up, punching her legs as she saved a break point in the fourth, and acing to hold for 3-5. She then fired a forehand onto the baseline to edge a lead on Williams’ serve.
Her efforts were rewarded—almost—when Williams smashed a ball into the net for break point, but a couple of huge serves later and the chance was snuffed out. Williams jumped with joy as she served it out, 6-3, after two hours of pulsating tennis that delivered 66 winners, 46 of them from Williams, to only 23 errors, 12 by Williams.
Azarenka, a gracious loser, believed it to be one of their best matches, and one of the finest at Wimbledon so far: “I can’t say I went out there and didn’t play well. We just saw today why Serena is No1. I haven’t seen her play like this, honestly, even the last matches before that. I wasn’t surprised because I know she’s going to do everything to win there, and I was just trying to stay focused and apply my game. But, you know, she really stepped it up at really key moments. I just had to fight through.
“I think we put on a great show together really. I think it’s been a while since there was that high quality of women’s tennis.”
Now Williams does indeed take on that third rival in a row, Sharapova.
The Russian last beat Williams in the year that she also won her first and only Wimbledon title, 2004. Indeed she scored two wins over Williams that year, while still a teenager, but has not managed to top Williams since—in 16 straight matches. In all that time, she has only won three sets, too, though in their last match, in the final of this year’s Australian Open, Sharapova took her nemesis to a second-set tie-break.
So Williams will hope to beat her third Grand Slam champion in a row—and keep alive her hopes not just of a second ‘Serena Slam’ but, down the line, a possible ‘Calendar Slam’. If anyone deserves that rare record, surely Williams does.
Elsewhere, No 13 seed Agnieszka Radwanska beat No21 Madison Keys, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, to reach the semi-finals for the third time in four years. The popular Pole was the losing finalist to Williams in 2012. She next plays No20 seed Garbine Muguruza, who beat Timea Bacsinszky, 7-5, 6-3, to reach her first Major semi.
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