February 17, 2013

A Battle for Supremacy

Two days ago Serena Williams earned the right to reclaim the #1 ranking. Today the woman she took it from proved she wasn't going to let it go quietly.

Serena's rise back to the top was long overdue -- after the season she had in 2012, one that included two Major titles, Olympic Gold and eighteen wins over top ten players, she'd more than proven she was the one to beat. She started this year with a bang too, taking the title in Brisbane, and though she suffered a surprising loss in the Australian Open quarterfinals she'd climbed back to within a stone's throw of the ranking she last held over two years ago.

This week in Doha, Williams won her first couple matches with little drama, but with the #1 spot on the line in the quarters she was finally tested. Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had lost their previous three meetings, all at Slams and all in straight sets, but she came out of the gates swinging this time around -- she lost just eight points on serve in the first set and didn't allow a single break point. After winning her first set off her opponent, though, the American raised her game and converted the only break chance in the second. The decider went back and forth, but after more than two hours of play Serena had finally finished off the match and secured her return to the top of the rankings. From there it seemed like a clear shot to the title -- with a one-sided win over Maria Sharapova in the semis, she looked as though no one would beat her.

But Victoria Azarenka had other ideas. The defending champion in Doha was undefeated in 2013, having successfully reclaimed her crown in Melbourne, but despite a 13-0 record going into Sunday's final and having lost just two sets during the year, she knew she'd be relegated to "just" #2 in the world come Monday. With nothing to lose, though, she was free to hit freely today -- she took an early lead against Williams and, after missing an opportunity to serve out the first, rallied to save set points in the breaker. Serena raised her game in the second to force another deciding set, but Vika won the first three games of the third and never looked back. Serving at 5-3, she ran off to a 40-0 lead and finally ended a nine-match losing streak to the #1-elect.

It's interesting that Azarenka would play her best tennis against the top player in the world when she was most under the gun. Sure she'd notched one huge win over Serena to win a big title, but that was almost four years ago and came when Williams was not playing at her best. And though the Belarusian had some promising results early in her career -- she'd built leads twice in Melbourne before retiring in 2009 and ultimately squandering a huge lead the following year -- the middle years of their history were solidly in Serena's favor. It wasn't until the U.S. Open last year that Vika was finally able to put up any fight against her nemesis.

But today's victory might have shown that their past is truly in the past, and with an opportunity to reclaim the #1 spot as early as next week depending on her results in Dubai, Azarenka has kicked the battle for the best in this sport into high gear. And for the first time in quite a while in the women's game, it looks like the two most worthy adversaries are the ones fighting it out.

And that's the kind of contest in which we all come out winners.

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