One of the most compelling rivalries in women’s tennis will have its 15th instalment on Sunday when Cincinnati’s top two seeds meet in the final. Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka came through tough, messy matches on Saturday to set up an intriguing showdown that will give one of them a distinct psychological advantage heading into the US Open.
While some might say that the pair’s head-to-head record refutes the very notion of ‘rivalry’ – Serena leads it 12-2 – others will point to the fact that Azarenka is one of the few players who consistently plays the American tough. Moreover, she beat Serena in their most recent hard court match in Doha earlier this year, proving that she has the all-important self-belief required to unseat the world number one.
Neither woman was at her best in Saturday’s semi-finals. Serena led 4-1 in the first set of her clash with Li Na, before letting the Chinese star fight back and serve for it at 5-4. Serena recovered to take the next three games and establish another commanding lead in the second set, but again Li came back. However, the fifth seed continued to throw in double faults at inopportune times, and she hit her eighth at match point down to surrender 7-5, 7-5.
If the 12 breaks of serve in that match seemed like a lot, serving was even more of a disadvantage in the second semi-final. Azarenka battled Jelena Jankovic for over two hours under the lights, eventually triumphing 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 by winning the break-fest 13-10. Azarenka also hit an unsightly 11 double faults and had a lowly first serve percentage of 48%, but she exhibited more power and variety during the rallies and kept Jankovic under constant pressure.
Both Serena and Vika will be hoping to raise their games for Sunday’s final.
“I’m really excited to be there,” said Williams, who revealed she has been suffering from an abdominal injury this week. “Obviously I’m going to try to win, but I’m just going to try to stay in the moment and work on the things I’ve been working on recently.”
Azarenka said that she’s finally feeing good again after a season plagued by injuries.
“I feel much fitter than I ever was before – I think it’s showing on the court a lot. I feel like my game is just coming more and more together, and my goal is to have it together for the US Open.”
With Serena short of her best form, Azarenka has a great chance to beat her for the second time this year and send a strong message before travelling to New York. She’ll try to keep her foe on the run, testing her tender stomach and making her hit the extra ball. Serena’s serve is usually her main advantage over Azarenka, but if it continues to misfire then there will be little to separate them.
Yet while the top seed’s serve can’t be relied upon today, Azarenka’s is even more of a liability. She has hit far too many double faults all week, and often spun in powderpuff second serves in a bid to avoid hitting even more. Serena will treat those with the disrespect they deserve, and Azarenka knows it.
This match will come down to which player does the best job of protecting her weaknesses. Both are superb defenders and returners, and both are paragons of mental toughness. We’ll tip Serena to come through a tense three-setter, but only after Vika pushes her to the limit.