US Open 2012: Victoria Azarenka sets up final against Serena Williams

US Open 2012: Victoria Azarenka beats Maria Sharapova to set up a final clash against Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows

victoria azarenka
Victoria Azarenka will face Serena Williams in the US Open final Photo: Marianne Bevis

victoria azarenka

As surely as night followed day, so it had become a near certainty that the last four men standing at the sharp end of a Grand Slam draw would contain if not all four of the top seeds than at least three of them.

And just as day followed night, it was invariably true that one of them would win the title, as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had done in 29 of the last 30 times.

But over this same period, it became just as clear that there could be no such certainty on the women’s side. Across the same period—30 Grand Slams—there had been 13 different winners, and a different name on the trophy for the last seven Majors in a row.

Which made the semi-final line-up at the 2012 US Open something of a red-letter day and a sign, perhaps, of the cream rising to the top with a consistency not seen in a decade. For all three Grand Slam winners in 2012 were still in contention for the US title—the first time this had happened in the Open era—and all three were ranked in the top four: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

The fourth woman was one of the year’s best performers, up from 45 at the start of the year to her current No10, via four titles and a Grand Slam runner-up trophy at the French Open: Sara Errani.

Errani, despite her great run in New York, had perhaps the most unenviable task of the four. She played three-time former US champion, Williams, the only woman in the draw yet to drop a set. Indeed Williams had dropped just 16 games and stretched her win-loss record since the French Open of 24-1.

It quickly became clear that her run would extend to 25 as Williams swatted away the Italian challenge in around an hour, dropping just three more games in the process. The big question was, who would she face in the final?

Sharapova and Azarenka had both enjoyed the No1 ranking this year, the former winning three titles including her first French Open, and the latter taking four titles including the Australian Open. They matched up in other ways, too, with Azarenka holding a narrow 5-4 advantage in their previous meetings, a 2-1 lead this year, the wins coming in hard-court finals.

Then there was their aggressive games, their fierce determination, their volume—one a screaming roar, the other roaring scream. And their will not to lose could be summed up in their three-set matches: This year, Azarenka had won all 11 of hers, Sharapova all 12 of hers.

Sharapova, who had not got beyond the fourth round since she won here in 2006, got off the stronger start while Azarenka, who had never got beyond the fourth round, struggled to find her mark early, and Sharapova took advantage of the Belarusian’s second serves to pummel her backhand down the line.

The temperature was so blistering that the two women would be entitled to a 10-minute break ahead of a possible third set—but Sharapova’s opening suggested that no such third set would be required.

Azarenka felt the early pressure, serving a double fault to give up her first service game: After just 11 minutes, Sharapova was 3-0.

The array of tics of each woman were soon in play: Sharapova’s tip-toe retreat to back of the court between points, her long stare at her opponent before serving, her slow and deliberate bouncing of the ball; Azarenka swinging her rope of a plait across one shoulder, pointing her racket where she wanted the balls delivered, a scowl etched into her forehead.

Azarenka, taken to deuce again in the fourth, at last made a signature forehand winner to get on the scoreboard but another double fault in the sixth conceded a second break. She was 5-1 down and getting a taste of what she had dealt out to Sharapova, 6-3, 6-0, in the Australian Open final.

But Sharapova, too, showed some tension, giving a break back also courtesy of a double fault. Serving at 5-3, she made two more doubles and then fired a backhand wide to give Azarenka another chance to break, but she retrieved the set with some big serves and a wondrous lob that dropped on the baseline. A final ace and the set was hers, 6-3. She pumped, she leapt and she roared “c’mon”. If she had ever looked more intense, it was hard to recall when.

The second set opened in similar fashion with Sharapova determined to build on her 10 winners to one of the first set, and Azarenka lost four straight points at 40-15 to give away an immediate break. The dots of crimson that blush her cheeks during competition grew deeper and wider, perhaps enjoying the heat less than Sharapova.

But now the No1 seed started to pick up the direction of the Russian’s serve, especially to the wide forehand, and produced some outstanding returns direct at Sharapova’s feet. She broke back and Sharapova felt the pressure, double faulting on break point to go 3-1 down.

Azarenka’s serve as well as her returning steadily improved, forcing Sharapova to hit one return after another out of court, and it was 4-1.

Sharapova had the more power, made the more winners, but also made more errors, and although she almost broke in the seventh, Azarenka was strong enough to keep the edge. Indeed it was the woman from Belarus who broke again with cleverly angled power to level the match, 6-2. She had made only three errors to Sharapova’s 12.

Perhaps it was not surprising that Sharapova used the 10-minute heat break to go off court, nor that Azarenka kept the juices and the momentum flowing by hitting some practice balls. Mind games or differences of style: Who knows what was at play. But it stoked the flames for both as they went for yet more power, more depth, bigger serves.

There was not a sliced backhand nor a drop shot to slow the pace or change the rhythm. This was ‘first one to blink’ tennis, full pelt, no prisoners.

However, it was Azarenka, serving first, who gradually took a grip on the set and the match. Sharapova faced three break points and five deuces in her second service game, and saved the game with her big forehand and serve.

It was the same again in her third and fourth service games—five more deuces. But though Sharapova had to work harder to hold, they remained locked at 4-4, with the set already 10 minutes longer than either the first or second sets.

And it happened a fifth time, Sharapova this time serving to stay in the match. Azarenka powered to break points and although she overhit on the first, she won the second to take the match, 6-4, and reach her second Grand Slam final.

Azarenka won only her first Major just seven months ago in Melbourne, the tournament that extended her stunning unbroken run eventually to 26 wins and four titles. She is back to that form, a calmer, more focused, more confident player than in previous years.

But now, she faces a still bigger challenge. She has lost to Williams in nine of their 10 meetings, including here last year, and at Wimbledon and the Olympics this year.

And even putting that history to one side, Williams has been, quite simply, superb in New York. She wants this title and it will take a truly exceptional woman with a truly remarkable performance to deny her.

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