US Open Final Preview: Is Azarenka Ready?

Originally Published: On the Baseline

Flushing Meadows — Hindsight is 20/20, or at least that’s what Victoria Azarenka is hoping for when she faces Serena Williams in the U.S. Open women’s final on Saturday night.

World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has advanced to her first-ever U.S. Open final, and just to add a little bit of icing to that cake, the match will be played in prime time, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, under the lights. She’s had a phenomenal season, with the best W/L percentage on hard courts this year (32-2, 94.1%). She already has one Grand Slam under her belt (2012 Australian Open), and is hoping for her second. She hasn’t lost a three-set match this year. Now 12-0.

Her opponent, Serena Williams is coming off one of the best summers of her career: Wimbledon champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, and now, her sixth U.S. Open final. But even prior to this year, the 14-time Grand Slam champion has proven to be a huge obstacle for Azarenka, with a 9-1 lead in their head-to-head match-ups. They faced each other in the 2011 U.S. Open (third round) and Azarenka lost in straight sets. This year, Serena has defeated Azarenka in all three of their matches (Madrid final, Wimbledon semifinal, and the Olympics semifinal). Serena has a 6-1 W/L record in three set matches for this year.

What tactics does Azarenka need to use to successfully maneuver around Serena’s power game? “I have to try to return well, definitely, and serve,” said Azarenka, after defeating Sharapova in the semifinal on Friday. “With Serena, it’s not really the long rallies. It’s all about who grabs the first opportunity, who is more brave to step it up right from the beginning.”

Easier said than done. Heading into her 19th Grand Slam final, Serena leads the pack for the highest number of aces at the U.S. Open: 50. That’s right. 50. She is also 3-0 over world No.1 players in Grand Slam finals: 1999 US Open, vs. Martina Hingis; 2002 Wimbledon vs. Venus Williams, 2005 Australian Open vs. Lindsay Davenport. The three-time U.S. Open champion hasn’t dropped a set coming into the women’s final.
A win on Saturday would give the 30-year-old her fourth U.S. Open title, 13 years after she won her first U.S. Open title in 1999.

Serena seems to have a certain controlled calmness about her (uncharacteristically so), as well as more continuity in her game, which makes her appear even more intimidating.

“I don’t have anything to lose, said Serena on Friday, after her semifinal win vs. Sara Errani. I feel as though I’m going up against the most consistent and the best player this year [Victoria Azarenka]. She then clarified her statement by saying “I always believe that I’m the best. On paper, she’s gone much deeper in Slams than I have.”

Also in Friday’s press conference, Serena said that she feels “more experienced” this time around, after her surprise loss to Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final.

Serena may not need to draw on her own 20/20 hindsight to win the U.S. Open final. She may just have to keep doing what she’s been doing since the first round: Demolish her opponents with her power, serve, and incredible ability to hit any angle from anywhere on the court.

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