September 8, 2013

No Winds of Change...Yet

It sure was swirling out on Arthur Ashe today, and I'm not just talking about the gusts that blew up the skirts of the players on center court -- the balls flew too, hard and fast, showcasing the strengths and fortitude of the two ladies left contesting the championship at the U.S. Open. Serena Williams, in a quest for her fifth title in New York, took on world #2 Victoria Azarenka, runner-up here last year, and though the American ultimately lived up to expectations as the heavy favorite, the road to the trophy was far from easy and may have established just how far these two have set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd.

Serena and Vika had last met just three weeks ago in the Cincinnati final, and the young Belorussian had staged quite a comeback to claim the trophy, but Serena had proven the stronger player at Flushing Meadows, broken just twice in her first six matches and spending just over an hour on court each time. Azarenka, on the other hand, had to claw back from a set down to both Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic, and lost serve an astounding nineteen times during the fortnight. Serena had the upper hand from the start in the final, too, rebounding after giving up an early lead to take the first set and running off to a 4-1, two-break lead to start the second.

But Vika would not concede. She took advantage of some weak serving by the world #1 to draw even, fighting off Serena's attempt to serve out the match -- twice. In the tiebreak she squandered her first couple set points but finally was able to force a decider, again challenging Williams when everyone assumed she had the title all but wrapped up. Of course the momentum shifted squarely back to the other side of the court in the third set, with Serena grabbing an early break again, but this time raising her own service game to keep the lead safe. In only the second three-set U.S. Open women's final since 1995 -- both of which featured these two ladies -- Williams again walked away the winner, adding Slam #17 to her trophy case and closing in on records held by legends like Chris Evert and Martina Navritalova.

And while Serena's victory in New York cements her as the best in this sport -- for now, and possibly for all time -- it's important to acknowledge the effort put up by Azarenka in this final as well. The twenty-four year old was all but vanquished about an hour into this match, but found a way to regroup and stay strong, determined to prove she deserved to share a bit of the spotlight. After all, she has beaten Williams twice this season, and has given her the biggest fight she's faced in any of her recent Major victories. Serena might not be ready to hand over the reins quite yet, but Vika's certainly shown she's more than capable of taking over when the time comes.

And when the winds finally do start blowing in that new direction, we can only hope the battles we see are as great as the one we got tonight.

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