For all the cynicism around the quality and consistency of matches on the women’s tour, there were quite a few memorable matches this year. The Williams sisters’ comebacks coupled with the resurgence of Maria Sharapova and the determination of players like Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska ensured that there was a sustained level of interest in most of the important tournaments. On a given day, any player was capable of beating the other. This year also saw the rise of some promising players in the form of Sara Errani, who was the finalist at French Open and part of the longest best of three sets match in WTA championships history against Radwanska, and the gritty German Angelique Kerber.
The Australian and French Open women’s finals were pretty one-sided and given the explosive nature of the men’s finals in both those tournaments, it was easy to see why people preferred reading about the women’s finals in the papers, because reading about them sometimes lasted longer than the matches! Fortunately, the finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open helped reverse the trend of lopsided finals, although Serena Williams emerged victorious in both the instances. At Wimbledon, despite being unwell and not at her physical best, Radwanska put up a resilient fight against the tenacious American legend by winning the second set, but eventually Williams simply overpowered her. The state of affairs at the US Open was a little different though. In terms of groundstroke power and physicality, Sharapova and Azarenka are perhaps more of a threat to Serena than anyone else on the tour. So it was pretty interesting from a viewer’s perspective to see the US Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka’s journey to the finals was one of two contrasting tales. Up until the fourth round, it was business as usual with the Belarussian coming through in all her matches in straight sets. It helped her cause that she did not face much resistance from her opponents either. Her first real challenge came in the form of Sam Stosur against whom she won in a very tight third set tie-breaker. The semifinal match against Sharapova also saw her dig deep as she had to come back from a set down to beat the French Open champion. Serena Williams, on the other hand, did not drop a single set en route the finals, even dishing out two bagels to her opponent in the fourth round. Her absolute dominance over her semifinal opponent, Sara Errani, was indication of how well she was playing. This has been one of the characteristics of Serena’s career. She plays better as the tournament progresses and her confidence grows. More often than not, she is her biggest enemy on court. Thus, when she is playing well and is focused, as has been the case since her Wimbledon victory, it is very difficult to beat her; Azarenka had a steep mountain to climb if she harbored any dreams of laying her hands on the coveted trophy.
Serena’s biggest strength is her serve. It is her most potent weapon. Another gift that she has is her sense of anticipation, perhaps a skill she has developed over the course of her long career. Azarenka, on the other hand, returns well, but her serve is always suspect, especially when she is under pressure. Another crucial factor is mental toughness. Both Williams and Azarenka are fighters, and a dog-fight between the two, which is exactly what happened in the third set, would be a test of both skill and nerves.
When the match started, Serena was in sublime form. She was serving well and did not face a single break point in the entire set. Azarenka, on the other hand, hit just two winners and looked out of sorts. As I was watching the match, I had the familiar feeling of the match ending in two sets with Williams’ experience helping her sail through. Boy, was I wrong. When the second set started, Serena looked a shadow of herself, making 26 unforced errors with a first serve percentage below 50%. In contrast, Azarenka was returning better, moving well and broke the American twice to win the second set.
The third set produced some of the best tennis this year with Williams proving why she has won 15 Grand Slams and is a living legend of the game. An initial tussle in the set saw the scoreline at 2-2, although it was clear that Williams was not as relaxed as she was earlier and her serve was letting her down. Azarenka broke Williams again, holding on tightly to her own serve to lead 5-3. Serena was able to hold on to her serve to take the scoreline to 5-4 before Azarenka got an opportunity to serve for her first US Open title and second Grand Slam. But three errors in a row saw her go down 0-40 and Serena was quick to capitalize on her opponent’s mistake. She then served well to go up 6-5 before winning the match on her first match point when Azarenka’s ball went long.
In the end, it was difficult to say who was the better player; perhaps Serena was by a whisker because she was able to stay calm when she was down. What followed was a jubilant celebration by Serena who won her fourth US Open to take her total tally to 15, just three short of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Azarenka showed why she is the World No. 1 and although she did not win the match, she won a lot of admirers and more than anything else, she acquired the belief that she had the game to defeat Serena Williams, a player against whom she has a dismal win-loss record of 1-10.
In the post match interview, both players were gracious in their praise for the other. When asked about how she felt losing the match in spite of being so close, Azarenka said, “Yes, as you mentioned, you know, I think it was a great match. Being so close it hurts deeply to know you don’t have it, you’re close, you didn’t get it. But at this moment, you know, I have no regrets. I felt like I gave it all there, you know. Could it have gone my way? Probably, yes. But it didn’t. It really, really hurts. You know, those emotions come out and you feel sad, but it’s time to really realize what happened today. You know, it was a great match. It was close but not for me.”
Given how well she played, perhaps, next year we will see the Belarusian’s name on the trophy.
The US Open women’s final had everything – excellent tennis, high drama and ultimately, jubilation and heartbreak. It was, without a doubt, the Match of the Year on the women’s side.
Catch the rest of the awards here: 2012 Tennis Awards