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Steve Flink: Serena Rises Again

9/9/2012 11:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NEW YORK— It has been said a good many times by those who speak with authority about the game of tennis that a major tournament is defined in many ways not by the memorable battles fought across the fortnight, but above all else by what happens in the final round. That is the moment that lingers the longest. No matter how many good matches are played over the course of the tournament, a compelling final can make or break an event, and is celebrated by sports fans long after the last ball is struck. Closely contested Grand Slam tournament championship matches are what the fans want, what the game needs, what we all hope for. 

This time around at the last major of the year, those of us who enjoy women’s tennis will not leave disappointed. Ever since Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles in a blockbuster three set final back in 1995, every women’s title round match at the Open has been at least relatively one-sided, and all 16 finals preceding this one were settled in two straight sets. There were some fine performances, and many masterful displays by the likes of Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, and Justine Henin. But there was a growing feeling about the cognoscenti of the sport that it was time for a final in New York that went the distance, left us in suspense, and gave the spectators something of value to shout about.

That is precisely what we got tonight at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Serena Williams captured her 15th major title and secured a fourth U.S. Open crown in the process by toppling Victoria Azarenka in a gripping 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 showdown. In my view, this was not a great tennis match. Seldom did both women play inspired tennis simultaneously. But it was very good theater and it went down to the wire before Williams was victorious. It was extraordinary entertainment, and for that tennis fans were surely grateful. And what made it all the more remarkable was the prevailing feeling after the first set that Williams was going to crush Azarenka in straight sets, just as she had done the previous five times they had met. Yet, in the end, what looked like an unstoppable Serena march to the title turned into a much more complicated task than that.

Serena predictably was the much more composed player at the outset. This was, after all, her 19th major final, and she had only been beaten in four of those contests: her sister Venus (two times), Maria Sharapova (once) and Sam Stosur (last year). Serena clearly knew her way around the territory of the big occasions, and that fact was revealed irrefutably in the early stages of this final round clash. Williams came out of the gates proudly and purposefully, determined to set the pace from the beginning, hoping to intimidate Azarenka with a bold start. Azarenka, of course, had been in only one final at a major, stopping Sharapova for the Australian Open crown this year. The experience of competing for a major is still relatively new for the 23-year-old, even though she was completing her seventh season of competition at the sport’s premier events. Moreover, Azarenka had lost nine of ten career appointments with Williams.

Williams imposed herself persuasively, setting the agenda early on. She held her serve at 15 in the first game, connecting with four of five first serves, and then broke Azarenka for 2-0 after two deuces. Serena was blasting her returns with interest and Azarenka could not stand up to the pace of her adversary. Serena held again at 15 for 3-0, once again missing only one first serve. Azarenka got on the board with a comfortable hold for 1-3, and then pushed Williams to deuce in the fifth game, but Serena responded to that challenge with gusto, forcing an error from the top seed with a searing forehand crosscourt, and then unleashing a clean winner off the forehand. It was 4-1 for the American.

Azarenka could not find a way out of this deficit, not with Williams playing such disciplined and determined tennis, not with her own nerves readily apparent to all of her supporters. Although Azarenka managed to hold for 2-4, she won only one more point in the next two games as Serena closed out the set with conviction, taking it 6-2 in no more than 34 efficient minutes. Serena has never lost a Grand Slam tournament final after winning the opening set. Her status as a front runner is unassailable.

And yet, it was unmistakable from the beginning of the second set that Serena was suddenly riddled with nerves, too conscious of how close she was to taking the title, almost too experienced for her own good. She stopped moving her feet, a clear sign of apprehension. Her serve went strangely off the mark. Her course sense evaporated. All of this was revealed in the first game of the second set. Williams had her serve broken only twice in six previous matches and twelve sets, but now she lost it again, and uncharacteristically so. At 15-40 down, Williams double faulted long. She had given Azarenka a sudden dose of encouragement, and the Australian Open champion relaxed as she saw Serena so out of sorts and uneasy.

Azarenka held for 2-0 in the second set as Williams made three glaring unforced errors in a love game. Williams briefly regained her equilibrium, holding for 1-2, garnering a break point for 2-2 after Azarenka double faulted. But Williams squandered that opportunity with another unprovoked mistake off the forehand, and Azarenka held on for 3-1. The rest of the set was mired with difficulty for Serena, while Azarenka gradually found her range off the ground and began ably exploiting the ineptitude of her opponent. In the second set, Williams made 15 costly unforced errors, seven more than the more solid and strategic Azarenka. Serving at 1-3, Serena suffered through another abysmal service game, making only four of ten first serves. Azarenka broke again, approaching behind a penetrating flat backhand, coaxing Williams into a wild passing shot error off the forehand.

That essentially settled the set. Both players held the rest of the way. Azarenka took the set 6-2, and her growing conviction was apparent. Williams was hardly bending for her ground strokes, and was too often caught in cramped positions by Azarenka’s deeper and better produced shots. A one set lead had swiftly disappeared. This match was headed into a third and final set. Clearly, Williams had her work cut out for her if she wanted to win the championship of her country for the first time since 2008. The American commenced the set well enough, holding at 30 with an ace out wide in the ad court. With Azarenka serving in the second game—and the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium sensing that Williams needed an emotional lift—the fans got behind the American more vociferously. Serena had two break points for 2-0, but she squandered the first with an abysmal errant return off the forehand, and Azarenka erased the second by opening up the court with a wide serve, sending her bristling forehand into the clear for a winner.

Azarenka held on for 1-1, and soon moved to 15-40, double break point in the third game. Williams served a thunderbolt 125 MPH ace down the T for 30-40, but then anxiously pulled a backhand wide on the next point. Azarenka was out in front, up a break at 2-1 in the final set, sensing perhaps for the first time that she could really win this tennis match.

That realization seemed to get in her way. She was up 40-15 in the fourth game and had four game points for 3-1, but failed to close out that important game. Williams eventually broke back for 2-2, using her return to set up a forehand swing volley winner. She gesticulated with a fist pump, trying to seize the moment and raise the crowd’s level of exhilaration. In the fifth game, Williams opened with a double fault but she eventually held at 15, serving a 122 MPH ace down the T, and releasing another ace at 123 MPH to reach 3-2. Yet Azarenka retaliated with an easy hold of her own, moving swiftly to 3-3. Williams had done her utmost to shift the momentum permanently back in her favor, to no avail.

At 3-3, 0-15, Serena double faulted. She then feebly netted an inside-out backhand. At 0-40, Azarenka made a first rate return, and she won that point when Serena drove a forehand down the line long. Azarenka had the break at love, advancing to 4-3, two holds away from the title. She had broken Serena no fewer than four times, a rare feat in a match of this magnitude, and a tribute to the top seed’s excellent return of serve. At 4-3, Azarenka’s anxiety was evident as she fell behind break point, but she was fortunate. Her crosscourt backhand clipped the baseline, skidded, and rushed Williams into an error. Now Azarenka took matters into her own hands, forcing Williams into a backhand error on the run, then cracking a forehand winner down the line off a short return from her adversary.

And so Victoria Azarenka was ahead 5-3 in the final set. She was within striking distance of a second major title, and a validation of her status as the top ranked player in women’s tennis. She had exploited Serena’s apprehension to the hilt, and was playing some first rate tennis down the stretch of an absorbing contest. Serving to stay in the match in the ninth game, Serena missed four of six first serves. Azarenka made it to 30-30, two points from the championship. Serena missed her first serve but she drove a forehand crosscourt with good depth. Azarenka should have been able to get that shot back into play, but netted a forehand down the line by not giving herself the necessary margin for error. Williams then laced a backhand down the line winner to hold on for 4-5.

That was crucial. Azarenka needed to get the job done right then and there, rather than going to a changeover and having time to think about serving for the title. When they changed ends, it was apparent that Azarenka was exceedingly tight, and she seemed to advertise her discomfort. The world No. 1 played an abysmal game when she served for the match. Williams drilled a blazing backhand return to force a mistake from Azarenka and reach 0-15. Azarenka then missed a routine backhand into the net to fall behind 0-30, and followed with another unforced error, this time missing an inside out backhand. She rallied to 15-40 with a brilliant crosscourt winner off the forehand, but then made her third unforced error of that critical game, netting a forehand after Williams went down the line with a backhand.

Williams had broken at 15 for 5-5. She held at 15 for 6-5. Now Azarenka was serving in the twelfth game to stay in the match, and she summoned everything she had left in her arsenal and emotions. It simply was not enough. She made it to 40-30, one point away from a final set tie-break. Twice in the 1980’s, U.S. Open finals had been settled in final set tie-breaks, with Tracy Austin toppling Martina Navratilova in 1981, and Hana Mandlikova besting Navratilova in 1985. Azarenka was incredibly close to taking this match into a final set tie-break.

But, at 40-30, Williams found an opening for a backhand winner behind Azarenka to get back to deuce. Azarenka then had a second game point for 6-6, but netted a backhand down the line as Williams stepped up the pace. At deuce again, Azarenka served wide to the forehand, and the return came back high. Azarenka drove it cleanly down the line, but unluckily missed it long. It was match point for Williams, and she hit her backhand return off a second serve hard, but with a healthy margin for error. Azarenka’s response was inadequate; she drove the ball long off her two-hander. Williams had willed herself to another win, somehow casting aside her strange inhibitions, demonstrating again that her capacity to win the matches of consequence is second to none in her generation.

By taking her 15th major, Williams has moved to within three of a tie with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list. Margaret Court stands all alone at the top with 24, Steffi Graf has 22, and Helen Wills Moody is third at 19. Williams remains so ambitious that she should at least threaten Evert and Navratilova, and perhaps tie Wills Moody. She will be 31 at the end of the month, but the feeling grows that she has at least two more years to top of the line tennis left in her, and perhaps three. For the time being at least, she can celebrate winning her latest big title in a stupendous summer. Will anyone ever again win Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open in the same year?

I doubt it.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.