September 9, 2012

The Good Kind of Drama

There's always been a high level of excitement at the U.S. Open, what with late-night finishes and an always-rowdy New York crowd. But for seventeen years, the women's final in Flushing Meadows has been devastatingly one-sided with one tiebreak played since 1995. That all changed this evening as two of the sport's heaviest hitters put on one of the most unpredictable shows we've seen in a while, keeping an entire stadium and legions of tennis fans on the edge of their seats for over two hours.

It had been said since the moment the draws were announced that the most drama would be in the top half. Seven of the last eight Majors were won by women in this section, and three of these ladies made it to the quarters. And, happily, the favorites did not disappoint -- Victoria Azarenka was pushed to the limit by defending champion Sam Stosur for the right to meet 2006 winner Maria Sharapova in the semis. And in what became the fourth or fifth "match of the tournament", found a way to come back from a set and a break down to her Australian Open rival, closing out the nearly three hour match Friday evening. The win earned the Belorussian to her second Slam final of the year -- the second of her career -- and brought the world #1 to a stunning 32-1 record on hardcourts for the season.

More stunning, however, might be the performance of Serena Williams through the bottom half of the women's draw this past fortnight. True, she's had fewer real challenges, but her last three matches -- including ones against 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic and this year's surprise runner-up Sara Errani -- took less than three hours put together. She'd only dropped serve twice at this Open going into Sunday's weather-delayed final, and given some ignominious ends to her last two runs in New York, she must have delighted in her no-frills advancement this year.

The two players -- arguably the favorites for this title going in despite Azarenka's previous record here and Serena's conservative #4 seeding -- have had an interesting history. Years ago, Vika was one of the few players that could give Serena a challenge at the Australian Open. In 2009 she was up a set in the fourth round but retired down a break in the second with heat exhaustion, and a year later she took another set in the quarters and pushed the eventual champion to a tiebreak for the second before eventually succumbing. She did manage one win over the fourteen-time Major winner, taking the Miami title over an injured Williams a few years back, and in their early head-to-head it looked like this might turn into a very solid rivalry. But ironically, once Azarenka was thoroughly entrenched in the top tiers of the sport, Serena turned the tables -- in their last five meetings, over the past two years, the American didn't drop a set and handed the on-paper favorite three one-sided breadsticks.

But today's final was not nearly so one-sided. Serena came out swinging, of course, got a break over her opponent early and finished off the first set in a quick thirty-four minutes. It looked like it was going to be a walkover, but Vika turned the tables hardcore in the second -- as Williams' game began to show some holes, the twenty-three year old took advantage. She pounced on second serves, of which there were many, and cleaned up her game. After another half hour she'd evened the score and forced the first third set at a U.S. Open women's final in seventeen years. She even got the early break in the decider, putting herself in position to pull off what would be the biggest win of her career. Serena was able to pull even again, but Azarenka broke one more time for a 5-3 lead. But nerves finally got to the still-new #1 -- serving for the championship a match later she found herself down 0-40 and, when she failed to dig herself out of that hold, a few minutes later she was serving for a tiebreak. Serena took control then and, in what might be the most hotly contested Major final she's ever played, ultimately took the match in a long last game.

The win not only solidifies Serena as one of the best players this sport has ever seen, but one of the best fighters out there -- able to battle even when her opponents throw the best stuff they have at her. For Vika, hopefully she'll be able to take the loss in stride -- to put up a performance like she did against such a decorated champion shows more trophies are sure to come her way. And with the drama at this year's Open finally taking a positive tone, we can only hope the action will get better from here.

That leaves just one match more at this year's U.S. Open. Tomorrow afternoon, in the fifth straight Monday championship in New York, defending titleist Novak Djokovic will take on second-time finalist Andy Murray for the men's trophy. Nole holds a slight edge in their head-to-head, but has won both of their matches at the Majors, and has been one of the most dominant hardcourt players of the last two years. Murray's sure to put up a fight, though, and for the first time in a long time people are calling him a contender again. And after the thrilling women's final we've already seen, you can't count out any surprises tomorrow.

So let's hope these boys live up to the expectations the ladies have set for them.

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