Sunday, September 8, 2013

Serena Williams: Queen of the hill, top of the heap

When I think back on today's outstanding U.S. Open final, the image that will come to my mind first will be that of Serena Williams' pink flared skirt blowing in the wind. The wind blew her skirt all the way up on several occasions, and the top seed had to make adjustments to it over and over. It wasn't really the skirt she needed to wear on a very windy day, but it was the least of her problems. Williams fought the wind, her skirt and an opponent who simply refused to give up.

Down a set and two breaks, Victoria Azarenka somehow forced a third set, making this year's final as good as last year's. The outcome, however, was the same: Williams won her fifth U.S. Open, 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. In doing so, she also won her 17th major.

The wind was a factor in every game, frustrating both women, and sometimes--when they least expected it--helping them. The match began with an exchange of breaks, and then Azarenka asserted herself as the player more able to handle the wind. In the ninth game of the set, Azarenka hit her peak, hitting fluid, accurate groundstrokes, and looking dominant on both serve and return.

At 4-5, Williams double-faulted. It got dicey for her for a while, but she held when she hit a 104 mph. serve, after hitting a winning backhand volley on the run. Williams then broke Azarenka, and served for the set. She held at love.

Azarenka was broken right off in the second set, and Willliams followed the break with a hold at love. It would have been easy for a casual spectator to start discussing dinner plans, but this was only the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the more dramatic sets of tennis we've seen this year.

At 1-3, Azarenka double-faulted twice in a row at 30-all, giving Williams a second break (now, can the dinner plans be discussed?). At this point, even to the not-so-casual spectator, it looked like the world number 2 was going down fast. But then she got two break points in Williams' next service game. Williams saved one, but then--after a long rally--Azarenka broke. She then held with a forehand up the line hit after a long rally.

Serving at 4-3, Williams held at love, and threw in another ace to get to game point. Azarenka then had a solid hold. Serving for the match at 5-4, Williams double-faulted and made crucial errors. She was broken. But she broke right back. During all this drama, the wind never let up.

Once again, Williams served for the match. She began with an ace, but then became visibly tight, and double-faulted to give her opponent another break and to set up a tiebreak. Williams, putting the last game behind her, went up a mini-break right away. Azarenka then proceeded to hit a swinging volley that blasted its way right to the baseline. After Williams tossed a volley into the net, it was 3-all. The score became 4-all when Williams hit a ball long, then Azarenka went up 5-4 with a volley that Williams also returned long, just as the wind churned even harder.

Suddenly, Azarenka had two set points. Williams saved one with a huge, out-wide serve, and then she saved the second one, too. But then Azarenka hit a second serve right into her opponent's body, and--on set point--Williams hit a return out. A third set was established.

I can only imagine what it felt like to the players to come down a bit after that second set. I felt depleted just from watching it. Azarenka, of course, had accomplished the seemingly impossible, but she still had a set to go.

Each player held at the beginning of the final set. The third game was fascinating, with Azarenka double-faulting twice, but also with Williams starting to throw everything in her considerable repertoire at her opponent. For the rest of the match, the world number one would volley, spin, lob, and masterfully serve her way to victory. In the fourth game, Williams hit an unreturnable serve, a lob that made it to the baseline, a 126 mph. ace, and an ace up the T. What's a world number 2 to do?

Williams broke Azarenka to go up 5-1, then served for the match for the third time. At 15-all, she got a bit of assistance from the wind when a ball went in that was expected to perhaps go out. At 40-15, Azarenka saved a match point, but then the inevitable could no longer be postponed, and Serena Williams became the 2013 U.S. Open champion.

Williams hit nine aces. She had 76-47 first and second serve win percentages and she hit 36 winners. She missed a lot of volleys, she experienced a great deal of frustration, and she looked across the net and saw the kind of attitude she herself carries into every big match. It was a long--2 hours and 45 minutes--ordeal. The crowd couldn't have asked for a better final. And in the end, Serena couldn't have asked for a better one, either.

Serena wasn't the only winner today. 2nd seed Ana Konjuh of Croatia won the junior girls title by defeating unseeded Tornado Alicia Black 3-6, 6-4, 7-6. And Aniek Van Koot, seeded 2nd in women's wheelchair singles, won the title when she defeated top seed Sabine Ellerbrock 3-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Konjuh had some company--a Croatian player (and friend of Konjuh's) won the junior boys title.


Todd.Spiker said...

In so many ways, this is one of those finals where both players "win." It seems odd to say it about a player who's already been #1 and has won two major titles, but this feels like a loss that is going to make Azarenka an even better player. And maybe something "more" than that.

I guess it's something of a case of how a player makes that leap from a multiple slam winner (say, Kuznetsova) to the sort of champion that is something "greater." It might be hard to define, but you "know it when you see it." For example, Henin was already a slam winner when she put together the U.S. Open title run in '03 that turned out to define her career. For a bit there tonight, it felt like Azarenka was going to "jump the fence" and get to the other side, too, by having her own similar moment.

As it turned out, that'll have to wait. But if (or should I say "when?") that moment does officially come, it'll be difficult not to look back at tonight and say that this was a key moment -- if not THE moment -- that helped her get there.

Diane said...

I understand, and I agree. There's a reason Serena gives Vika so much respect--she deserves it. And the New York crowd loved her! Great to see New York fans recognize how great both players are.

Sabey said...

Coming up to the finals I felt the crowds were unusually warm to Serena and cool to Vika. So glad we had a compelling final that allowed fans to appreciate both players.