ISTANBUL – Six weeks after her loss in the U.S. Open final, Victoria Azarenka got another crack at Serena Williams. A victory would have been her first over Williams since 2009 in Miami and it would have assured her the year-end No. 1 ranking over Maria Sharapova.
But there would be no revenge Thursday at the WTA Championships — even though Azarenka generated chances and built a double-break lead in the second set. Williams was just too good, beating Azarenka 6-4, 6-4 to go undefeated in round-robin play.
“As usual, she’s on a roll and everything, but I feel like I didn’t keep up the discipline I had, the right play I had,” Azarenka said after the match. “When I had the right play I was in control most of the times, but I just couldn’t do it consistently.”
With Williams having already qualified for the semifinals after her win over Li Na on Wednesday, speculation was rampant about whether she would feel motivated to put in a full effort in what was essentially a dead rubber. These are the perils of round-robin play, where energy management is key in an eight-player tournament in which you could play five matches in six days. Williams has had lackluster efforts when she simply can’t be bothered, but to think she’d let Azarenka have a free pass would be to underestimate her competitive nature.
Though their rivalry is still taking shape — Azarenka got close in that U.S. Open final, serving for the match in the third set — Williams still owns it. Williams improved to 11-1 against Azarenka, and while the two are friendly and continually give lip service to the amount of respect they have for each other — Serena said that among the Championships participants she’d choose Vika to be her little sister for the week — it’s the type of warm and fuzzy relationship you can have when you don’t feel threatened. Vika as a little sister? I buy that, only because it means Serena could keep her in her place.
So there would be no gifts for Azarenka on Thursday, as Williams fired 11 aces and hit 35 winners to 23 unforced errors. The key stat of the match — other than Azarenka’s nine double faults, which included the one she hit on match point — was break point conversion. While Williams converted almost every chance she got (5 for 6), Azarenka was only 3 for 9.
“It’s just one of those days that just didn’t really work out,” said Azarenka. “It’s a little bit sad to have so many opportunities. Even though I didn’t serve as well, I broke her quite a lot. Throughout the whole (match) there were a lot of chances; I just didn’t take them. I didn’t execute well enough.”
After dropping the first set, Azarenka raced to a 3-0 lead and looked to be in control of the second set. That’s when Williams tightened up her game, reducing the unforced errors and stepping into her returns to swat them for winners. Azarenka struggled to hold her level through the match, undoubtedly fatigued from her three-hour battle with Angelique Kerber just 24 hours before.
“Well, not easy, but everybody is pretty tired here,” Azarenka said. “Everybody plays back to back. So I cannot say it’s piece of cake to do that, but we are here and I’m honored to be here. So I just need to reset my mind, my approach, tomorrow.”
Vika will have to bounce back quickly. The loss sets up a “win and in” match against Li, who also has a 1-1 record in the Red Group. If Azarenka wins, she would clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking and advance to the semifinals. A loss would open the door for Sharapova, who could overtake her by winning the title.
As for Williams, she’s played progressively better in her three matches here. She still hasn’t found her best tennis — her serve has been up and down all week — but she says she’s practicing well and knows that if she can translate that level to her matches, she’ll be on a roll.
“I’ve been practicing really hard, and I actually expected to play better,” Williams said. “If I could just play the way I have been in practice, it would be more comprehensive matches. So hopefully as the tournament goes on I can get better.”
It’s the perfect scenario for Williams. After three straight days of play, she’ll get the day off on Friday before Saturday’s semifinals.