French Open 2015: Williams beats Azarenka again in growing drama-packed rivalry

Serena Williams comes from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka and reach the fourth round of the French Open

There are few rivalries on the women’s tour to ‘rival’ the ones on the men’s tour. None in the Open era have more often met than Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, now 43 matches, or between Djokovic and Roger Federer—40 of them.

But among active women on the tour, Serena Williams is one half of the top three. That between Serena and sister Venus tops the list and is the closest, a 14-11 rivalry. Next comes the 19-match, 11-year-old rivalry with Maria Sharapova—the most one-sided of her three ‘big ones’ at 17-2 in her favour.

The third, which was also set to reach 19 by the end of play on a raucous middle Saturday at Roland Garros was with Victoria Azarenka.

And while the balance between Williams and the former No1 and Grand Slam champion Azarenka has also been a one-sided affair, there had been signs that the 15-3 advantage to Williams may be ripe for some adjustment.

Because Azarenka suffered injury problems last year, her ranking dropped outside the top 30 and she had thus played Williams only once in 2014. But take a look at their 2013 record, and it was clear that Azarenka was beginning to provide the biggest challenge to Williams on the tour: Four matches, two wins apiece, and three of them tight three-set affairs.

Azarenka steadily reassert herself in the rankings, but still at just No27, she was always going to prove an early thorn in the side to one of the top seeds—and it would be Williams.

Add into the mix that the very same thing had happened less than a month ago in the third round of Madrid, and that Azarenka had three match points before Williams edged the win, 7-6 (5) 3-6 7-6 (1), after 2hrs 43mins and the scene was set perfectly for Roland Garros’s centre stage.

Serena went on to reach the semis in Madrid after that Azarenka tussle before withdrawing from her second match in Rome with an elbow injury, and she was far from happy with her three-set performance against Anna-Lena Friedsam: “I honestly thought for a second, I wasn’t sure I could win today because the level I played was not professional.

“I know my level is literally a hundred times better than I played today, so I take more solace in the fact I can play better, as opposed to the fact that’s the best I could play. Then I would be in trouble.”

For while she did hit 39 winners in that second-round match, she also made 52 unforced errors, including eight double faults.

Azarenka went on to reach the quarters in Rome and had thus far dropped only eight games in two matches, but she was realistic about lay ahead:

“There won’t be too many surprises for either of us. We always have tough matches. Facing somebody who’s No1 in the world is never easy, but I just want to focus on my game, on my energy, and try to play the best as possible. There’s no question I have to come up with my A game.”

But as Williams pointed out: “Out of all of the top players, for whatever reason, she’s given me some particular trouble. She fights hard and never gives up, and she’s really feisty.”

The drama was probably never in doubt, though it began in an uneven see-sawing fashion. First a scorching return of serve winner from Williams, then two errors, and a seven-minute game of two deuces before Azarenka held. More errors flowed from Williams for immediate break points, and a netted backhand gave Azarenka a 2-0 lead—only for Williams to return the favour, 2-2.

Again the score went to deuce and again Azarenka held and then broke. No matter how Williams berated herself, she could not counter her increasingly aggressive opponent. The woman from Belarus took the set, 6-3.

The sun was dipping behind the main stand, the stage now in full shade, and it demanded an extra top for Williams. Not that the tennis was cooling: it was, rather, warming up—and both women already had more winners than errors. Williams, in particular, was pumped on every point, pounding a massive smash to hold her opening serve.

But Azarenka continued to hit clean, flat and side to side, drawing errors and the break in the third game. Then serving at 3-1, Williams cranked up the volume again, hitting harder and harder. After six games, they had made only one unforced error apiece, and come the eighth game, Williams made the break back and held with an ace. Serving at 4-5, Azarenka fought back from 0-40 to deuce, only to make a fateful error, her first drop shot into the net for another break point—set point.

And if that was not dramatic enough, the next point was: Azarenka hit a winner onto the baseline but it was called out and the point was replayed. She was furious—still believing afterwards that she had made a winning point—and it got worse when Williams made a winner off the replay to win her fourth straight game and the set, 6-4.

Azarenka let her frustrations rip and got a code violation, but a quick trip to the bathroom seemed to do the trick. She came back refocused, opened with a winner, broke and held to love, 2-0. Williams did the same, hit a sequence of screaming winners to break, survived an edgy service game, and then ran for the finish line with six games in a row, 6-2, at just over 2hrs.

If there was any doubt about the quality of the tennis—even allowing for Azarenka producing more despondent errors in the closing stages—it was the winner count: 41 to Williams, 21 to Azarenka, in cool, slow conditions.

Williams now takes on a newer adversary but one that has caused her upsets in the past, the American 11 years her junior, Sloane Stephens. The younger woman beat Williams in the quarters of the 2013 Australian Open from a set down, and took her the distance again in Indian Wells this spring.

It’s a rivalry that will never reach the numbers of Williams and Sharapova and Azarenka—unless Williams plays until she’s about 40. But it has the potential to make up in quality what it lacks in numbers.

Also in this quarter, Sara Errani, the losing French Open finalist here in 2012 and a semi-finalist in 2013, got revenge over Andrea Petkovic, who beat her here in the quarters last year, 6-3, 6-3, in 80 minutes.

Errani next plays the unseeded Julia Goerges, who followed up her victory over No5 seed Caroline Wozniacki with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Irina Falconi.

The top seed in the other top-half quarter, No4 Petra Kvitova reached the second week after beating No30 seed Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-3, 6-2. Her next opponent is No23 seed Timea Bacsinszky, who beat No16 Madison Keys, 6-4, 6-2. The win took Bacsinszky to the second week of a Grand Slam for the very first time in her career.

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