Serena Williams (Player Info) and Victoria Azarenka (Player Info) may have taken different routes, but they’ve ended up in the same place. The best players of the season will face off in the US Open final for the second year running, with the winner likely to be crowned the WTA’s star of 2013. Serena leads the Head to Head against Azarenka with 12-3.
On paper, Serena has had a much more impressive year. She’s won nine titles, including a 16th Grand Slam at the French Open, and lost just four matches. Yet if she loses the US Open showpiece to Azarenka, the ultra-demanding American will consider her season a disappointment. Chasing even more history, Serena wants the big prize more than anything.
She’s certainly been playing well enough to get it. In her six matches at Flushing Meadows, she lost no more than four games in a set. Former Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone could do nothing to hurt her; nor could the woman who upset her in Australia, Sloane Stephens. In the quarter-finals, she humiliated Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0, and in the semis she was even more impressive. Facing fifth seed Li Na, one of the few players who can match her for power and movement, Serena surrendered just three games in a masterful display of controlled aggression and unshakeable focus.
In contrast, Azarenka has earned her spot in the final the hard way. She began the tournament with a double bagel of her own against Dinah Pfizenmaier, but she was pushed to three sets by both Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic. While she improved against Daniela Hantuchova in the quarter-finals and Flavia Pennetta in the last four, she continued to struggle on serve and hit more unforced errors than winners.
In total, Azarenka has served 31 double faults this fortnight compared to Serena’s 10. In fact, the top seed has outperformed Azarenka in virtually every measurable department. So clinical and ruthless has Serena been that this US Open has felt rather like the London Olympics, where she blitzed through the draw to win the Gold Medal. She hasn’t had any off days, and for much of the time has been playing at a level far removed from that of her opponents.
So what will have to happen for the second seed to make a match of it, let alone pull off the upset? Firstly, Azarenka will need to serve better. She doesn’t have the biggest delivery, but at her best she can place it well and get a high percentage of first serves in court. That would prevent Serena from hitting blistering returns and gaining the upper hand in rallies early on. Secondly, she’ll have to be aggressive and move forward when she can. That’s what she did to good effect during her two hard court wins over Serena in Doha and Cincinnati: coming to the net pressures Serena and forces her to thread the needle with ambitious passing shots.
Finally, Azarenka will need to do what she couldn’t manage in last year’s final: stay composed during the crucial moments. She served for the title in 2012 and blinked, and that was all Serena needed to mount a comeback. If she gets a lead on Sunday, she’ll need to slam the door shut on the younger Williams sister as quickly as possible.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and if Serena plays as she did against Li, Azarenka will struggle to make an impact. Even if the world number one wasn’t in the form of her life, she would be the favourite to win a fifth US Open title. It would be great if this match is as close as their recent thriller in Cincinnati, but based on current form, it looks set to be more similar to their clash in Rome, which Serena won in straight sets.
Prior to the final, Azarenka said that Serena is the greatest player of all time, an opinion shared by a growing number of fans and pundits. With another superb performance and a 17th Grand Slam title, the top seed will take one step closer to the Evert/Navratilova tally of 18. She may be approaching her 32nd birthday, but Serena has never been fitter, hungrier or more productive. She’ll win this in two to prove once again that, at her best, there is no one to touch her.