Number-Two ranked Victoria Azarenka survived a slow start to defeat Number-One ranked Serena Williams in the third-set tie break to take the title at the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament from Cincinnati Sunday evening.
Azarenka, 24, showed the mental toughness she has developed over the past few seasons, staying composed after dropping the opening set and getting more fierce and focuses throughout the match, yet never losing her temper as she had been wont to do. The 24-year-old Belarussian beat her American opponent 2–6, 6–2. 7–6.
Serena Williams, no 31, had been on top of women’s tennis for over a decade. Even after losing a season to illness and injury, the 31-year-old Williams was able to rejoin the tour and regain her number one spot; she had won eight tournaments already in 2013 before coming to Cincinnati.
Azarenka had reached the finals by defeating Jelena Jankovic in a very shaky match with 20 breaks of serve. Serena Williams also didn’t play her best in the semi-finals, where she beat Li Na but seemed to be suffering physically, with a pulled stomach muscle, and mentally, with a very self-critical attitude.
Both players came out stronger in the finals. Serena Williams in particular was nearly her old self in the first set. She was serving hard—up to 115, compared to 85 the day before—and had a confident air about her.
Williams dominated the first set: she broke her Belorussian Opponent in the opening game and again in the fifth game, winning the first set 6–2. She hit three aces and even though she made only 65 percent of her first serves, she won 90 percent of the points because of her powerful ground strokes.
Azarenka Fights Back
Azarenka accepted the loss and bounced back stronger, breaking Williams in her first service game of the second set, and perhaps most telling, she started returning Serena’s serves. Azarenka jumped from winning 42 to 66 percent of her first serve points, while Williams dropped to 48 percent—the big serve started missing, and so did just about everything else.
Williams, possibly hampered by her sore stomach, or possibly just not able to keep her focus, hit 26 unforced errors in the second set, versus only five in the first. Serena was setting up great shots, getting Azarenka out of position, then hitting wide or hitting the net.
After a couple of her misses she walked away looking deeply dejected—her fighting spirit was missing, so all of her many tennis tools were somewhat blunted.
Azarenka ran up the score to 4–1 when Serena made her stand in the sixth game of the set. In a 20-minute marathon which stretched to 13 deuces, Serena showed that she wouldn’t surrender; she finally won with an ace and a powerful passing shot which Azarenka, charging the net, couldn’t handle.
It was a great game, but one great game was not enough. Azarenka held, then broke Serena for the third time to win the set.
A Test for Both Players
With the tournament coming down to the final set, both players found new levels of performance. Azarenka had her serve working, and she followed it up with strong ground strokes for easy points. Her return of serve, possibly the best in the women’s game, was also dialed in. She managed to break Serena in the sixth game of the match
Williams’ shots still lacked accuracy, but she had found her fighting spirit. She broke back in game seven, coming from 0–30 down to win the game. Buoyed by the win, she started hitting with the surgical precision she is capable of at her best, picking the corners with forehands and hitting serves too strong to be returned.
After holding to cement her break, she broke Azarenka again in the next game, which left Serena serving for the match. Suddenly her accuracy went away; she couldn’t get a first serve to lands through the whole game, and Azarenka’s return game was too strong for even Serena’s second serves. Azarenka got a break back the pair were on serve.
In the next game, Azarenka held at love. Williams then held at 15, and the match came down a tie break.
Azarenka came out fast int eh tie break, running the score to 3–1, then 4–2, but an Azarenka miss and a beautiful backhand down the line from Serena tied it at four. The pair traded points and Williams got the serve tied at five. Two points on service and Williams would win the match.
Willimas missed her first serve, but a good second serve and a better follow-up got Azarenka running. Williams hit a drop shot which forced her opponent to sprint the length of the court. Azarenka paddled it back over the net, and Serena had the entire court as a target and the ball all but teed up for her. Somehow with all that acreage to hit, Williams went long; losing the point.
Possibly the easy miss frustrated her too much for her to focus. Whatever the reason, Williams picked that moment to serve up a double fault. From two serves from victory, she was suddenly facing defeat.
Azarenka had the match on her racket and two chances to serve it out. She blasted an excellent Williams return long on her first attempt, then won one of the best rallies of the match with a crosscourt drop shot off an amazing running backhand from Williams.
Williams drove Azarenka’s next return into the net, and the young Belorussian won tie break, set, and match.
Serena Williams is still the favorite going into the U.S. Open a week from now, but only if she can rest and completely heal. Azarenka on the other hand needs only to keep her momentum; she might be second in the rankings but she just beat Number One, so her confidence heading into Flushing Meadows should be sky high.