The women's final at the 2012 U.S. Open had just concluded Sunday evening and an ecstatic Serena Williams was partying like it was 1999.
Leaping up and down. Raising her arms in triumph. Scaling the wall separating her from her family and entourage.
Just as elated as she was 13 years ago when she captured her first U.S. Open singles crown and first of 15 Grand Slam titles.
Chattering to anyone within earshot and plenty loud enough to penetrate the towel draped over the face and ears of her vanquished, sobbing opponent, Victoria Azarenka.
That celebration was absolutely the last thing the world's No. 1, who had danced a jig herself on Friday after rallying to edge Maria Sharapova, wanted to witness or hear just then.
But it also was what she most needed to experience.
It was good for Azarenka to absorb every last Serena jump, shout, laugh and ear-to-ear smile—and feel each one like a piercing dagger. Better still if she assumed the victor was trying to add insult to injury and really trying to twist the knife, even if that was the furthest thing from Serena's mind.
The 23-year-old Azarenka, whose charming, daffy demeanor in interviews is reminiscent of the silly, innocent Monica Seles of the early '90s, needs to take this loss really hard, this heartbreak very personally.
She needs to feel the agony in her deepest fibers, and then beat herself up some more after that. She's got to berate herself for squandering a 5-3 lead in the third set to lose 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 and for failing to hold serve twice in a row when it mattered most.
Because that aching sensation—assuming it's there and hurts enough—can be the catalyst for change, the fuel she needs to work harder than ever so her opponents are the ones doing the suffering.
Of course, she also has to correctly diagnose the problem and tirelessly strive to obliterate it, but her comments in her final press conference of the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament show some encouraging awareness.
"Well, the serve is definitely (Serena's) biggest asset, you know. If you look in both of our games, it's the biggest difference, you know, if you take it simple." (via usopen.org)
Simple, yes, but then again tennis ain't neurophysics.
Azarenka would make her life a lot easier and even more title-rich if she consistently served at 105 mph rather than settling for a mid-90s mph on the speed gun (according to the U.S. Open's official match statistics).
It would also be nice if more of her first serves were simply untouchable.
Sunday's official match stats show she struck zero aces and won an intolerably low 55 percent of her first serve points in the final, while Serena fired 13 aces and won 77 percent of her first serve points.
Her inability to get easy points with her first serve proved disastrous at the close of the match. In the 15 points Azarenka played when serving at 5-4 and 5-6 in the third set, she won just one with a service winner.
Unsurprisingly, her ability to out-rally Serena all but disappeared when faced with the pressure of trying first to serve for the championship and then to force a tiebreaker, as she was buried under an avalanche of her own errors, both forced and unforced, and her opponent's winners.
In a previous article, I had praised Azarenka's weakness-less game, but I was wrong. Her inability to win easy points with the serve is just as much a liability as a clunky backhand, and it's a problem that shadows her match after match, win or lose.
She hit zero aces to Maria Sharapova's eight in the semifinals and just one ace in her quarterfinal match against Samantha Stosur, whose powerful first serve and high-kicking, neutralizing second serve helped carry her to a shocking upset of Serena in last year's U.S. Open final.
Azarenka will probably never have a serve on the level of Stosur, let alone Serena, but she is 6'0" and simply cannot settle for one ace in 41 service games in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final of the 2012 U.S. Open tennis event.
Her second serve also can't slice harmlessly into her opponent's strike zone.
What can she do to take her serve up a notch?
Working on her throwing motion is essential, and perhaps she could benefit from some cross-training. Spending hours and hours with a football in her hand until she can hurl perfect spirals 40 yards in the air could pay huge dividends.
Azarenka also could benefit from more weight training, something she also alluded to in Sunday's post-match press conference.
The mission should be clear. There are about 5-10 mph separating the 2012 Australian Open champ from more Grand Slam titles.
Only she knows just how much she enjoys doing the dancing—and, more importantly, how much she detests doing the weeping.
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