The ladies final at the Western & Southern Open at Cincinnati was a tense back-and-forth affair between the top two players in the world.
In the end it was World Number 2 Victoria Azarenka who somehow managed to come out on top, defeating Serena Williams in tennis’ version of sudden-death – a final-set tiebreaker.
In a match that was reminiscent of last year’s U.S. Open women’s finals, Serena won the first set handily before Azarenka roared back to claim the second set. Azarenka rode that momentum to an early lead in the final set and looked to be in control of the match, but just as she did then Serena would fight her way back to find herself at match point. However that is where the similarities would fight. Azarenka simply refused to quit and her fighting spirit (aided by some “tight” tennis from a weary Serena) was rewarded with a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory.
But the victory was not only big for Azarenka (who had struggled a bit during the summer before Cincinnati) but also a huge one for the plot when it comes to this year’s final Grand Slam tournament.
Serena Williams has firmly established herself as the top dog of the WTA Tour. She is the top-ranked player in the world. She is the defending U.S. Open Champion and is once again the heavy favorite when the tournament begins on August 26th.
If Serena is on top of her game who can stop her?
Certainly not Maria Shrapova, who is so thoroughly owned by Serena that her head currently serves as her residence. Players like Agnieska Radwanska, Jelena Jankovic and Sara Errani just don’t have the firepower (Errani must still have nightmares of that bludgeoning she took at the French Open thanks to Serena). Others such as Petra Kvitova and Li Na have the firepower but are too inconsistent and error-prone.
Victoria Azarenka is the only player in the top-10 who has shown the ability to defeat Serena even on her best days. She has proven over the last two years that she is the best hard-court player in the world with a hard-court record over that span that is actually better than Serena’s. In the two Slams that are played on hard courts (Australian and U.S. Open) she has won 20 of her last 21 matches – her lone loss being last year’s final. Do not be fooled by that 12-3 record that Serena Williams enjoys over Vika. Azarenka has now won their last two meetings on hard courts – both in finals (she also won the Qatar Total Open in Doha earlier this year).
Azarenka has shown that she is unafraid of the world’s top player and she has the belief that she can take her out on the big stages. She knows how close she was to winning their U.S. Open final last year (she was serving for the championships) before her nerves did her in. She has shown that she is willing to dig her heels and engage in battle and though she does not possess the power game of Serena, her movement, accuracy, ball striking and consistency compensates for her lack of power.
If the tennis gods are kind, they would ensure that these two women meet again in a few weeks’ time at Flushing Meadows for what should be a riveting U.S. Open finals.
Serena would still be the favorite were that the case, but not by as much as you may think.