Today, arguably the greatest female American tennis play ever to grace Arthur Ashe Stadium will be faced with one of her most daunting challenges to date.
That's because Serena Williams, who's already locked up four U.S. Open crowns over the course of her illustrious career, is set to take on her most formidable foe in Victoria Azarenka at Flushing Meadows.
Roughly a year ago, one would have thought that Williams would be the overwhelming favorite to capture the year's final Grand Slam title, but a lot has changed since the 31-year-old 16-time Slam winner ousted the Belarusian star in the final match of last year's edition of the storied tournament.
Since Williams squeaked out a victory in a three-set thriller over Azarenka, the 24-year-old challenger has managed to find ways to defeat the younger, yet more successful Williams sister.
In fact, two of the the pair's last three meetings have ended with Azarenka claiming victory, and more importantly, both of those matches were hard-court contests.
With that in mind, here's a look at what Williams needs to do to defend her U.S. Open title on Sunday.
Get up, Early
So far, Williams has made quick work of her opponents, as the reigning Olympic champion has yet to surrender a set at this year's Open.
While that's a testament to Williams' sheer power and ability to wear her opponents down in a hurry, it'll be interesting to see how she'll respond if Azarenka challenges her, especially during the earlier stages of the match.
Yes, Williams should win, because at least on paper, virtually everything is working in her favor. She'll undoubtedly have the crowd on her side, but more importantly, she holds a mental edge over Azarenka, given that she's never lost to the two-time Australian Open champion at a Grand Slam event.
But whether Williams is able to put Azarenka away may depend on how the Saginaw, Mich. native performs during the early stages of the match, because historically, she fares much better in two-set finishes.
Since they first met in 2008, Williams has yet to lose a match that was settled in straight-set fashion, and the only way Azarenka has managed to defeat the powerful American has been via three-set affairs.
Given that Williams has yet to drop a set through her first six matches of the tournament, it seems logical that if she can jump out to an early lead, potentially via a timely break, Serena will waltz to the title.
Manage the Pace of the Match
One of Azarenka's calling cards is her ability to overwhelm opponents by keeping matches moving quickly, so Williams will have to be wary of allowing the Belarusian to gather momentum by speeding up the rate of play.
Thus far, Azarenka has managed to dig herself out of tricky situations in the clutch, as the reigning Open runner-up found a way to win against Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic despite dropping the first set in each match.
Against Williams, Azarenka will almost assuredly use that mentality again, but given their history, if Williams can prevent hard-hitting No. 2 from accelerating the pace of the match, she'll outlast Azarenka.
Pressuring Azarenka's Service Games
Though she eventually defeated Flavia Pennetta in straight sets, it wasn't the prettiest of performances for Azarenka.
Instead, the semifinal clash featured a number of mental lapses on the part of Azarenka, as SI.com noted:
Here’s the final stat line for the match:
Azarenka: 0 aces, 56 percent 1st serves in, 6 double faults, 15 winners, 25 unforced errors, 8-for-13 on break points, 20-for-30 at the net.
Pennetta: 1 ace, 44 percent 1st serves in, 3 double faults, 19 winners, 23 unforced errors, 5-for-6 on break points, 12-for-12 at the net.
If Williams can put the pressure on Azarenka during the latter's service games, this one could be over in a hurry. If the reigning Australian Open champion matches her semifinal total of six double faults, she won't stand a chance against Serena, who hasn't even been taken to a tiebreak at this year's Open to date.
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