As we limber up for the US Open 2013, anticipation is high that the women’s tournament will be one to remember. Serena Williams is a four-time champion at Flushing Meadows and the overwhelming favourite this year, but many feel that Victoria Azarenka is gaining ground in their rivalry. There are also plenty of up-and-coming players – Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, Madison Keys – who could make a big impact. At the very least, fans are hoping for plenty of high-intensity, evenly balanced matches that exhibit women’s tennis at its very best.
With that in mind, here is a look back at three of the best US Open matches of the 21st century. Each one featured elite competitors at their very best, fighting until the very last moments.
The turn of the century was a golden era for women’s tennis. Martina Hingis was the world number one, but she was increasingly challenged by Lindsay Davenport, and the much-lauded Williams sisters were rising fast. Some pundits had begun to murmur that the Swiss Miss’ game, based on anticipation and variety, wasn’t equipped to cope with the barrage of heavy hitting from her stronger rivals.
That had appeared to be the case when Venus Williams overpowered Hingis on the way to her first Wimbledon title in 2000, but at the US Open later that year, Hingis pushed her foe to the limit in a match for the ages. In the opening set, she was steady where Venus was reckless; mixing the pace of her shots and throwing in bamboozling angles and spins, Hingis kept her more powerful opponent off-balance to win it convincingly. Hingis might have lacked firepower, but it seemed that Venus’ lack of consistency would be her undoing.
However, in the second set, the American elevated her game. Her serve started clicking, allowing her to immediately take control of rallies, and her movement got better and better: Hingis was having to defend relentlessly and produce audacious shots to win points; anything short, slow or mediocre was demolished by Venus in an instant. Hitting with brute force as well as devastating accuracy from the back of the court, the elder Williams sister took the second set in style.
If Hingis’ brand of cerebral tennis was the story of the first set and Venus’s next-level ball-striking dominated the second, the decider saw both women at their peaks. The rallies became intense, exhausting mini-battles, often lasting more than 30 shots. Hingis picked the right moments to play aggressively and earned the crucial break. At 5-3, she was two points from a place in the final and had gained the upper hand in yet another gruelling exchange, but she failed to put away a regulation smash, and Venus improvised brilliantly to nail a backhand pass. The shot that brought the fans to their feet also broke Hingis’s will. Venus won the final four games of the match to clinch an unforgettable 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory; as she jumped around the court in delight, she mouthed the word “unbelievable.”
This legendary semi-final clash is remembered not just as a stunning tennis match, but also as a perfect example of Justine Henin’s incredible fighting spirit. The little Belgian had won her first Grand Slam at the French Open earlier in 2003; her opponent in the semi-final ten years ago was Jennifer Capriati, in pursuit of the fourth major title of her career.
After falling behind 4-1 in the first set, the American found her range on her groundstrokes and began dominating from the back of the court. She won five games in a row to take the opener and, keeping up her aggressive, positive play, established a commanding 5-3 lead in the second set. Henin was pushing her in every game, but it seemed that Capriati was able to play the important points with more authority, and a place in her first ever US Open final looked assured.
But just when she should have turned the screw, the three-time Grand Slam winner lost focus, and Henin pounced. Although she continued to struggle on serve, Henin won five games in a row to push an already physically demanding contest into a decider.
However, Capriati regrouped and relaunched her baseline assault. She charged the net whenever she got a short ball, and gradually wore down her diminutive opponent in a series of drawn-out, highly taxing rallies. Having established a 5-2 lead in the third set, Capriati was on the verge of victory for a second time, but the match turned on its head yet again. Despite suffering from severe cramps in her left leg, Henin never stopped scrapping. On 10 occasions she was within two points of defeat, but each time she fended off match point with brilliant backhands and attacking play. She broke back, forced a tie-break, and eventually eroded Capriati’s resolve. When the home favourite netted a volley a few minutes later, it ended three hours and three minutes of electrifying combat. Henin’s 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 triumph took a considerable toll on her – she had to be put on a drip afterwards – but she carried her remarkable spirit into the final the following day, where she beat compatriot Kim Clijsters to win her first US Open.
If the 2003 semi-final encapsulated the tenacity of Justine Henin, last year’s showpiece was all about Serena Williams’ mental strength. After losing her cool at the 2009 and 2011 US Opens, the American was determined to stay calm and collected in the 2012 final, but her patience and resolve were sorely tested by Victoria Azarenka.
Serena was close to her imperious best at the beginning of the match. Her serve, one of the best in the history of the women’s game, was on song, and she returned Azarenka’s deliveries with fierce intent. By keeping her unforced error count low and defending superbly, she broke the Belarusian twice to take the opening set 6-2.
The second set began in total contrast. Azarenka broke a more hesitant Serena in the first game, and gradually found the space to assert herself. As Williams started misfiring on her groundstrokes, Azarenka capitalised, and made judicious moves towards the net. She broke Serena again to take the second set 6-2 and set up a nail-biting decider.
The tennis wasn’t always of an exemplary standard in the third set, but it was certainly compelling. Although Serena continued to hit more winners, she was also the more error-prone, going for too much as she tried to hit through Azarenka. When she dropped serve in the seventh game, it seemed that her risk-taking would cost her dearly, especially when Azarenka held for a 5-3 lead.
Serena, taking deep breaths between points, held serve to put the pressure back on the top seed. Sure enough, Azarenka faltered when serving for the match. She handed Serena three break points, and the crowd favourite took the second to put the match back on serve. Azarenka had a point to force a tie-break in the 12th game, but another bold winner from Serena followed by two forehand errors brought an end to the two hour, 18 minute slugfest. Serena, with her 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory, had won her fourth US Open and 15th Grand Slam thanks to yet another fearless comeback.