And while Williams led their head-to-head 17-3, a look at the story of their rivalry told a more balanced story.
All three victories by Azarenka had come in finals, and with her two-and-a-half-hour victory against Williams to claim the 2013 Doha title, she had taken the mighty Williams to three sets in six of their eight clashes. All six lasted over two hours, two lasted almost three hours, two went to Azarenka, and although Williams won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year, she did so on both occasions from a set down.
And while Azarenka’s ranking had slumped to 48 at the start of 2015 after prolonged foot problems, and then a leg injury last autumn, she had fought her way back up the rankings, unseeded, through long, tough draws. Now, with the Brisbane title and a run to the Australian quarters behind her, she arrived in Indian Wells with a seeding of 13, did not face a higher-ranked player all the way to the final—and fell in the opposite half of the draw to Williams.
Things, then, were falling well for the 26-year-old, in a tournament where she already boasted a 25-6 record as well as the 2012 title.
Williams’s route to her first final in Indian Wells since returning from her 15-year absence last year proved to be altogether tougher—not that she dropped a single set. By the time she faced defending champion and No5 seed Simona Halep in the quarters, she had dropped only 13 games, and lost only seven more to Halep. Her semi opponent, the slight but tactically brilliant No3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, promised to be a tough nut to crack, and the Pole did take Williams to a second-set tie-break, only to win just one point, 6-4, 7-6(1).
So the American, with a 23-1 record at Indian Wells, maintained her favourite status as she targeted her 70th career title and a record third in the desert.
But things did not start quite as planned for Williams or the majority of the fans in this vast stadium. Four straight errors, two of them doubles faults, and the American had conceded an immediate break.
She did hold to love in the third game, but Azarenka was in no mood to back off, and her own serve was delivering some big points. She faced a break point in the sixth game, and came under typically aggressive fire in the eighth as Williams cranked up her returns of serve, but Azarenka withstood four break points, and an over-hitting Williams sent another drive long. A love hold from the Belarusian, and she had the set, 6-4.
Yet Azarenka was only too aware that she had been in this situation in their last two meetings, so she kept up the pressure, taking the ball early, stepping inside the baseline, and drawing still more errors from Williams.
The second set began just as the first, with a break, as Williams struggled to groove her biggest weapons with any consistency. She saved one break point but double faulted on the second—her 21st unforced error of the match.
But if Williams failed to apply pressure on her own serve, she was almost as profligate in wasting chances on Azarenka’s serve. Four times she had a chance to get the break back, four times she failed, and Azarenka responded with some strong serving at the right time to hold, 2-0.
Still Williams could not find any rhythm: An ace, followed by a double fault, and then a huge forehand well long offered up a second break—and her racket was broken too.
As if she could afford to give up points, she smashed the same offending racket as she sat down, and was punished with a second warning and thus a point deduction. Azarenka did not need it: She served to love for 4-0.
Aside from her racket smash, Williams had shown almost no emotion throughout the match, not a shout, not a fist-pump, even when she stopped the rot with a hold. It was proving an uphill task against a focused and intense Azarenka. By the time the Belarusian took a 5-1 lead, she had not dropped a point on her first serve—and would end the set with 20/21. She did, though, concede one break—on Serena’s 10th attempt—for 5-3: Azarenka would have to try and serve it out again.
Until the final ball, the Indian Wells crowd hoped for a reversal, especially when Williams worked two final break points, which would have levelled the set, 5-5. But Azarenka did not falter, thumped two big serves, and drew the last of 33 errors from the Williams racket, 6-4.
So Azarenka, who now returns to the top 10 tomorrow, has joined a rare group of women to claim two Indian Wells titles, and earns a still bigger accolade: the only player to defeat Williams in more than three championship matches.
And she was effusive in her praise for an emotional Williams: “I wanted to first address a personal thank you to Serena. I know how emotional it was for you to be back here and you truly inspired so many people out there to see the type of commitment you have to the game. It’s truly inspiring… If it wasn’t for you and how hard you work and seeing you play so well, I wouldn’t be as motivated to come back and work so hard. Thank you on behalf of the sport.”
Amen to that, but it also does women’s tennis no harm at all to have Azarenka back at her competitive best. So roll on Miami, where Williams is an eight-time and defending champion—for Azarenka is a former champion there, too.
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