In the end, it was the final we wanted. Sure, there were sentimental favorites who might have pulled the heartstrings, but when we talk about the current state of the women’s game you can’t ask for a better U.S. Open final than one contested between the toughest player on hard courts this year in No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and the most dominant player in the moment, No. 4 Serena Williams.
Given the way Williams has handled her summer, it’s tempting to write off Azarenka’s chances on Saturday. Let’s not kid here, folks, this could be a rout. Coming into the final, Williams is 25-1 since losing in Paris, winning her first Grand Slam tournament in two years at Wimbledon, filling the gap in her résumé by winning Olympic singles gold in London and collecting a few more singles and doubles titles along the way. She has looked unbeatable all summer and there’s no doubt she’s in every WTA players’ head. Every player who was asked to anoint a favorite at the tournament has tapped Williams to win, though she herself has been trying to deflect any pressure as the odds-on favorite.
“I don’t have anything to lose,” Williams said after cruising to a 6-1, 6-2 win over French Open finalist Sara Errani in the semifinals. “I feel like I’m going up against the most consistent and the best player this year, being Victoria Azarenka.
“I always believe that I’m the best, obviously. I mean, on paper I think she’s been more consistent, going much deeper in the Slams than I have and being pretty consistent.”
Consistent is precisely the word that comes to mind when it comes to Azarenka, who arrives in the finals after hard-fought wins over defending champion Samantha Stosur and French Open champion Maria Sharapova. Both big servers with high-octane offense (sound familiar?), Azarenka’s steadiness and unflinching return game wore down her opponents. Heading into the semifinals, Azarenka had a 70-percent break rate. Azarenka broke Stosur (widely considered the second-best server in the game, behind Williams) six times in three sets and followed that up by breaking Sharapova five times in the semifinals in another three-setter, driving the Russian mad with perfectly placed returns that got on Sharapova before she had even recovered from her service motion.
Azarenka, who ran her 2012 hard-court record to 32-2 on Friday, has the weapons that can disrupt Serena’s game. Though 0-3 against her this year, Azarenka has shown signs of life against the American. Williams had to serve a record 24 aces to beat Azarenka 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the Wimbledon semifinals this year, and in their hotly contested third-round match here in 2011, Azarenka pushed Serena again in the second set before losing 6-1 7-6 (5).
“If you look at our record, it says it all,” Azarenka said, referring to Serena’s 9-1 advantage. “I definitely need to find something to surprise her because she’s in a great form, feeling really confident right now. She has everything on her side.”
Azarenka will need to be ready to play from the first ball. That’s been her downfall in her past matches, where she’s needed 30 minutes to ramp up her intensity, letting Williams roll through an easy first set before finally digging in to push her in the second. Azarenka is a fiery player with a competitive streak that rivals the best. In the past she’s come onto the court offering too much respect to her veteran opponent. If she wants to win on Sunday, she needs to check that deference at the door.
Aside from her return, which she needs to get deep, Azarenka will have to protect her serve, which tops out around 100 mph. Williams will crush that pace and it’s up to Azarenka to mix it up and place it well, pulling Serena wide as much as possible to earn a short ball to put away.
It’s a tough task for the 23-year-old, but her gritty path to the final has to give her confidence. Williams will have an American crowd behind her that will hoot and holler with every screaming winner she fires past Azarenka. Vika will have to brush each one off and go again.
“When I go to play against her, I don’t think that I’m playing against Serena,” Azarenka said. “I just try to go the same way and try to focus more on myself. But you definitely know that it’s going be a big adversity against you. You have to be prepared to make sure you want to dig deep and accept the challenge.”
Azarenka has 24 hours to prepare to accept the challenge.
Prediction: Serena in three sets.