The highly anticipated US Open final rematch between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka was the second match in the Sinan Erdem Arena on Thursday. Williams had already secured her place in the semi-finals of the WTA Championships thanks to victories over Angelique Kerber and Li Na, while Azarenka was looking for her second win, following her thrilling comeback over Kerber yesterday.
Azarenka has had a fantastic season, winning her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and reaching the top of the rankings. However, her inability to defeat Serena this year has led many to question her legitimacy as the world number one, and the Belarusian needed a convincing victory over the American to quell such doubts.
Thursday’s round robin match began with both players holding serve for the first seven games. Azarenka was showing some signs of fatigue following her gruelling three-hour tussle with Kerber: she was slow to change direction mid-rally, and was struggling to make first serves. At 3-4, Azarenka double faulted to hand Serena two break points, and the American sent a blistering forehand return to the baseline to convert. Azarenka then played a superb return game to break straight back, constructing points well and using her formidable backhand to great effect. However, this merely delayed the loss of the first set, as two more double faults in her next service game helped Serena clinch it 6-4. With a fierce toss of her racquet, Azarenka made her displeasure evident.
But the world number one is nothing if not tenacious, and she summoned some of the extraordinary desire and heart she displayed against Kerber to race to a double-break 3-0 lead at the start of the second set. Very few players can do that to Serena, and the American looked flustered as she sent groundstrokes long and lost fluency on her biggest weapon, her serve.
Disappointingly for Azarenka, however, she too began to struggle again on serve. Although her first serve percentage of 64% was much better than the 43% she had in the first set, a series of double faults at inopportune moments allowed the Wimbledon champion to get back both breaks and move into a 4-3 lead. Azarenka showed impressive nerve to hold to 4-all, but she fell behind 0-40 when serving to stay in the match and, perhaps fittingly, handed victory to Williams with her ninth double fault.
The win means that Serena ends her round robin campaign with a perfect 3-0 record. The Olympic gold medallist hasn’t dropped a set all week, and has been improving with every match, hitting 11 aces against Azarenka as well as 35 winners.
Azarenka will now have to beat Li Na on Friday in order to qualify for the last four. Doing so would not only guarantee that she ends the year ranked world number one, but also give her an opportunity to face Williams again in Sunday’s final, should they both win their semi-finals.