Victoria Azarenka’s hard-earned win over Serena Williams in yesterday’s Cincinnati final will inevitably be interpreted in one of two ways when it comes to working out what it means for the American’s prospects at the U.S. Open.
Azarenka fans and Williams detractors will position the Belarusian’s win as a sign that, as was bound to happen, Serena’s stranglehold on the game is slipping. After all, she’ll be 32 years old in a little over a month, has already bagged 16 Grand Slam titles, and lately has been prone to lapses of intensity and concentration comparable to those of the only other player whose record compares to hers, Roger Federer.
Williams partisans, on the other hand, are bound to interpret this match as an excellent motivational tool for the long, hard slog coming up in Queens. Conveniently ignoring the fact that Williams lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to finalist Sabine Lisicki, they’ll say that the sting of this loss will be just what she needs to get appropriately ornery when she gets a crack at that title. In other words, Serena has us just where she wants us—on the edges of our seats.
Yet there’s nothing pro forma or predictable about the task facing Serena. After all, she’s won the U.S. Open fewer times than either the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Also, the intervals between her crowns have been lengthy, at least after she won her first two titles. She marked time for five years after she won the title for the second time, in 2002, and for three years after she won in 2008. She’s never successfully defended a title in New York.
All that notwithstanding, does anyone doubt that this upcoming tournament, like so many that had come before, will be all about Serena? Even when she fails to win the title, this tournament usually ends up being about her—although not always in a good way.
This year will be no different, and it isn’t simply because the world No. 1 is such an enormous presence in U.S. tennis. It’s also because, frankly, the other major contenders for the top ranking are not only woefully subordinate in head-to-head comparisons with Williams, but also because they’re inconsistent. They’re from a different league, as Williams’ combined record against them vividly attests.
Serena is a combined—and staggering—26-5 against world No. 2 Azarenka and No. 3 Maria Sharapova. Oddly enough, Sam Stosur, who unexpectedly snatched the U.S. Open title out of Serena’s hands in 2011, is a respectable 3-6 against Williams, while Li Na is also mired in Sharazenka territory at 1-7.
Truly, when you peruse Williams’ record against her main rivals, you find yourself wondering how she managed to win “only” four U.S. Open titles despite the obvious home-court advantage.
And that’s where things get interesting.
For starters, in the 13 U.S. Opens Williams has contested, she’s ended her tournament by facing a Grand Slam champion 10 times, and one woman (Stosur) became a major champ after they played the 2011 final.
Here’s something else: Five of those Grand Slam champions are retired and another is struggling—that would be Serena’s sister Venus, injury plagued and presently ranked No. 60. In other words, some of the women who have made life tough for Serena in New York have faded away, a few of them (Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters) sooner than expected, creating the illusion that Williams has always towered over a depleted field.
That’s not entirely true, but Williams truly is the last woman standing. Justine Henin was a most respectable 6-8 with Serena, yet she just couldn’t keep up with the grind and has long gone into retirement despite being the same age as Williams.
One astonishing detail that emerges from Serena’s record at Flushing Meadows is that in her entire career, she has had exactly one result there that can be even remotely called a “bad loss”—that is, if that’s the right term for the third-round defeat in her first U.S. Open to a veteran ranked 12 rungs above her, as Irina Spirlea was when she halted Williams in 1998. As ho-hum a favorite as she may appear today (or appeared, until Azarenka pulled her latest surprise), Williams has struggled mightily with an endless stream of great players over her years in New York.
In her first final (1999), Serena stunned Hingis, then lost the following year in the quarterfinals to Lindsay Davenport. She beat her sister in 2002 for a title, then lost to a resurgent Jennifer Capriati. Serena then lost back-to-back fourth-round matches in 2005 and 2006 to Venus and Amelie Mauresmo, only to have to face Henin in the quarters the very next year. Henin, who would go on to win the tournament, won that quarterfinal, 7-6 (3), 6-1. Given where we are today, that seems almost surreal.
The other factor at play in Serena’s history at the Open has been a subtle one: Pressure. Surely you remember the ugly incident that transpired in the 2009 semifinals, when Serena menaced a line-judge for daring to call a foot-fault on her? Clijsters, her opponent that day, went on to win the match—and the tournament.
And who can forget the loss Serena took to Stosur in the 2011 final, a match Williams desperately wanted to win as a kind of tribute to New York, which was commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and demolition of the World Trade Center? That match, too, was marked with controversy and the reason was telling. Serena was so excited by a terrific shot she hit that she couldn’t refrain from shouting out as the point was still being played. It was an infraction of the “hindrance” rule that cost her the point—and an utter loss of concentration.
These were largely atypical moments at critical times in the career of a woman whose basic sportsmanship, when it comes to abiding by the decisions of the arbiters, or otherwise comporting herself in a professional manner, has been truly outstanding. And that suggests that Serena travels in somewhat unfamiliar emotional territory during the U.S. Open, terrain on which she finds it hard to control her anxiety and desires because she wants so badly to do well.
Just why the U.S. Open seems so important to her is fairly simple: She’s a patriotic and proud person, as her enthusiasm for the Olympic Games (among other things) has proved. As much of a beef as the Williams sisters (and their family in general) may have with the society of which they are a part, they embrace their national identity. This is a particularly refreshing quality in Serena, a big personality who could very easily affect a post-nationalistic bearing and attitude. It’s tempting for such personages, because it ensures that whatever narrative develops, it’s always all about you, the individual.
I don’t really see “revenge,” per se, as a terribly important motive for Serena as the Open approaches, not even after the Cincinnati final. That’s partly because it must be somewhat difficult to develop a serious disdain against a woman who’s won just three matches in 15 tries against you, but also because Williams genuinely seems to like Azarenka. As Serena said after the match:
“I’m a big Victoria fan. Whenever I’m not at a tournament, I root for her. . . she’s just so professional and so nice. I mean, I really get along with her.”
Of course, you can create plenty of drama without dabbling in revenge themes, which may be the more pertinent factor as we roll on toward the final major of the year. With this loss to her closest rival, Serena has created as uncertain and tension-filled a scenario as anyone might have cooked up. That last year’s U.S. Open final between these two ended up with Serena barely scratching by—7-5 in the third, after Azarenka served for the title—ensures that people are going to dwell upon these last two matches to the exclusion of the 12 that came before.
Serena has had an outstanding year; she’s 60-4, with eight titles to her name. By contrast, Azarenka is 36-4 with just three titles. Each of the women has won one Grand Slam tournament in 2013, meaning that if one of them wins the Open, it will be very hard to resist declaring her the de facto No. 1 for the year.
For Serena, a French Open-U.S. Open double would be a terrific feat, given how those are the two majors at which she’s met traditionally the stiffest resistance. Somehow, it feels like this tournament could be a grand finale, even though Serena professes to want to continue playing until someone holds an intervention and takes away her racquet.
Serena found a worthy rival just in a nick of time, and in so doing she’s made sure that nobody is going to take her superiority for granted. The risk for her is high, but the reward promises to be great—just like it always is when her forehands and backhands start flying.
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