Victoria Azarenka had never lost to Sam Stosur in their six previous meetings; in fact, she had never even lost a set to the Australian. Stosur’s famed “kicker” second serve does not scare the world number one, nor does her bombastic forehand and attacking style of play. But it was an entirely different story on Tuesday, as Stosur forced Azarenka to work for every point of her 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory.
In the match of the day at Flushing Meadows, Azarenka began imperiously, racing into a 3-0 lead before a rain delay forced the players off court. Stosur had been spraying unforced errors and mistiming her shots, growing frustrated with herself in the process. The script did not change when the two resumed play, and it looked as though Stosur was headed for yet another straight sets defeat at the hands of the top seed.
However, the defending US Open champion began the second set much more promisingly, breaking Azarenka for the first time in the match. Suddenly, she seemed more fired up, determined not to let her first grand slam title slip away. But instead of trying to rip winners from both sides of the court, the 7th seed was now playing more steadily, defending well and waiting for the right time to unleash a powerful forehand. At 3-all, Stosur secured a vital break after hanging tough in two long rallies. She then held serve, fending off constant pressure from Azarenka, to take her first ever set against the world number one.
Azarenka, leading 2-1, secured the first break of the deciding set, seemingly regaining the momentum. Stosur broke straight back, however, and after two more breaks the match was delicately poised at 4-4. The Australian has a history of losing matches from winnable positions, and her suspect nerve was now severely tested. Yet she refused to buckle, cutting off Azarenka’s sharp-angled shots and using her slice backhand to stay in long points. To her immense credit, she held serve twice more to force a decisive tie-break.
As the crowd yelled their appreciation, this dramatic match yielded yet another twist, as Azarenka raced into a 4-0 lead. Stosur was mistiming again, obviously exasperated at her inability to keep the ball in play. Once more, though, she fought back to 5-5, and was now within two points of the semi-finals.
Depending on your outlook, you could say the Aussie was either lucky or unlucky on the next point. Running around her backhand, her topspin forehand clipped the net, dropping short on Azarenka’s side of the court. Stosur was ready to attempt a cross-court pass as the Belarusian moved forward, but instead the Australian Open responded with a fine drop shot, displaying nifty finesse as well as steely nerves.
On match point, Stosur mistimed her final backhand and exited the tournament. She had played a major part in a classic match, but the wait for a second grand slam will have to continue into 2013.
Azarenka heads into her first semi-final in New York feeling hugely relieved, as seen in the “Oh my god” she mouthed as the players shook hands. She will nevertheless be slightly worried by her serving, which stood at a mere 48% in the first set and rarely reached 100mph throughout the match. Whether she faces Maria Sharapova or Marion Bartoli next, she will have to step up her delivery if she is to reach her second grand slam final of the year.