April 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times...

About two months ago Victoria Azarenka, ranked fourteenth in the world, met Serena Williams in the fourth round of the Australian Open in Melbourne.

It was the middle of the day during one of the hottest summer's in the country's history. Temperatures reached well above the 100-degree mark, while on the court reports suggested that it got as high as 120.

Yes, it was hot -- but so was Victoria. She'd just won her first WTA title in Brisbane, where she hadn't dropped a single set. She'd defeated two wily opponents, Lucie Safarova and Sara Errani, both of whom have given top players a tough battle, and then a resurging Marion Bartoli to take the championship. In Melbourne Azarenka soared over former #1 Amelie Mauresmo in under ninety minutes.

Against the top seed Victoria started in top form, breaking Serena not once, but twice in the first set. It looked like she was poised for a major upset, and about to win the biggest match of her career.

But then the teenager succumbed to the elements, swaying and listing in the heat, as Williams took advantage and a 4-2 lead in the second set. As I watched Victoria, ironically from a hotel room in Miami, I feared she'd collapse on the court -- she didn't, but did retire the match early, visibly shaken and convulsing in tears. Her opponent comforted her on the side and, to her credit, seemed genuinely concerned over Victoria's health.

Fast forward to the finals at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this weekend, where Victoria and Serena faced each other for only the third time in their careers. Since Australia both had continued their successes -- Serena of course won her fourth title in Melbourne and was looking to claim her third straight crown here, while Azarenka had added another champion to her resume with a win in Memphis.

But this time, things were quite different.

Victoria had climbed into the top ten for the first time, and she was clearly on a mission. Serena was fighting a soar ankle and quad and her serve was weaker than it had been in years -- fewer than half of her first tries went in, and barely a quarter of her second serves resulted in points for her. Azarenka capitalized, and broke her opponent's serve an incredible five times.

It took just over an hour for the Belarusian to triumph, beating the best women's player in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, and denying Serena her record sixth title in Miami. Victoria, meanwhile, becomes the sixth teenage champion of the tournament, and rises to a career-high #8 ranking in the WTA. Not bad for ten day's work, and quite a different outcome from their last meeting in a city on the other side of the globe.

In the meantime the men are getting ready for this afternoon's final, where Andy Murray will take on Novak Djokovic. I'm sure it's no surprise that I'm hoping for a similar "upset" in that match as well.

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