Don't miss any stories Follow Tennis View

Ready, Set, Rematch: Previewing the US Open Women's Final

Sep 7th 2013

After two weeks and 126 singles matches, the women’s tournament at the 2013 US Open will end in the most meaningful and dramatic way possible.  On Sunday looms a showdown between the top two women in the world, the best players of their respective generations.  No matter what the rankings tell us in December, the winner of this match will end 2013 as the player of the year with two major titles and a marquee victory against her greatest rival.

Serena Williams

Euphoria radiated from Serena Williams after her sixth commanding win of the fortnight in a semifinal against Li Na.  Yet some relief did as well.  Serena may have dominated the competition through the course of 2013 more than she ever has in a single season before.  All the same, a quarterfinal loss at the Australian Open and a fourth-round loss at Wimbledon rank among the most memorable moments of her campaign, in addition to her reconquest of Roland Garros.  More thus lies at stake for Serena here than first meets the eye.  Despite her remarkable consistency at ordinary Tour events, she will leave the season disappointed if she claims only one major. 

By contrast, a US Open title defense would send Serena into 2014 as the woman to beat at every tournament that she enters.  The world No. 1 has looked very much the woman to beat at this tournament, dropping just 16 games en route to the final and no more than five in any match.  Her formidable serve has set the tone for those six routs, the most recent over world No. 6 Li Na.  Just as important, though, is the crisp footwork and intelligent shot selection that Serena has displayed here.  She can win plenty of matches by recklessly ripping at every ball that she sees while standing on one leg, such is her athletic and shot-making talent.  But Serena needs those more subtle traits, including her footwork and her poise, to outlast a woman who has won their last two hard-court meetings—and nearly the 2012 final.

Surviving a fast start by the American last year, Azarenka battled within two points of the title before her nerves and serve betrayed her.  She will have learned from that experience as she prepares for the rematch, and not even her many detractors can deny that Vika holds the momentum over Serena on the surface where  they will clash on Sunday.  Having won a Premier Five final from her rival in Doha seven months ago, Azarenka repeated the feat on the more visible stage of Cincinnati.  That jewel in the crown of the US Open Series fell into Vika’s grasp when she won a match strikingly similar to last year’s US Open final.

That day, Azarenka again started in tepid form against Serena, a theme common in their matches.  As she had at the US Open, she rebounded from that dismal first set to sweep the second and claim a lead late in the third.  As she had at the US Open, she let the lead slip away.  Only then did the script flip.  Azarenka halted Serena as she served for the match and played the smarter, more tenacious, and simply more clutch tennis in the title-deciding tiebreak.  That was exactly the sort of situation when one expects a 16-time major champion to rise above less decorated opposition, and therefore the most convincing way possible for Azarenka to prove that she could master her long-time nemesis.

Victoria Azarenka

Much the less impressive of the two in Cincinnati before the final, Azarenka has been much the less impressive of the two again in New York.  Dropping the first set in two matches, she has lost more than twice as many total games as Serena has, spent substantially more time on court, and conceded many more service breaks.  (Azarenka dropped serve 16 times from the fourth round through the semifinal.  Serena?  Twice.)  The tournament winner/error differentials of the two finalists are nearly mirror images of each other, with Serena at a robust +33 and Azarenka at an unsightly -30.  And yet a parallel pattern unfolded in Cincinnati, carrying into the first set of the final before Azarenka overcame the long odds against her.

One can be sure that the world No. 2 will gain inspiration from that match, but so will the world No. 1.  Revenge motivates Serena as much as anything else, and she will look to set the record straight on a stage that matters more.  Azarenka still has something to prove against the American, moreover.  She never has defeated her at a major, and their rivalry cannot fully blossom until she does. 

Azarenka will achieve that breakthrough someday, but not quite yet.

Serena 6-4 3-6 6-2