US Open Tennis 2013 Women's Final: Williams vs. Azarenka Preview & Prediction
The only question now is whether the matchup can be anything other than a one-sided affair.
As expected, the world No. 1 will be joined in the finals by second-seeded Azarenka, who also cruised in her semifinal against significant underdog Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-2 on Friday.
Sunday’s final promises to be a repeat of an epic three-set battle between the two in last year’s Open that was won by Williams 7-5 in the third.
In fact, Serena is looking to eliminate her rising rival for the third straight year at Flushing Meadows and in the process win a 17th Grand Slam title.
The American has been a terror in this Open, displaying an impressive combination of athleticism and power that has proven too much for any opponent to deal with.
For Azarenka, the significant challenge of facing Williams provides her the opportunity to win a third career Slam title and the second of a breakthrough 2013 season.
The matchup marks the ninth time the two will have met since the beginning of 2012, and their third tussle in a Slam during that same period.
It’s also the most significant battle the pair will have waged against one another. Should Williams win, it will be her fifth U.S. Open crown. If "Vika" were to pull the upset, she would add a U.S. Open to her two Australian Open titles.
The stakes are certainly high on Sunday, and watching the outcome promises to be the highlight of an already entertaining year in women’s tennis.
Who Has the Historical Edge?
From an overall perspective, there’s little denying that Williams has owned her head-to-head battles with Azarenka since the two began playing one another four years ago.
In 15 career matches against the world’s second-ranked player, Serena has won 12, including all seven of their Grand Slam battles. Williams also bested Azarenka in the semifinals of the London Olympics last summer.
More recently, however, Azarenka has been asserting herself. She has won two of their three matches this year, including their most recent confrontation in the final of the Western and Southern Open last month.
Azarenka won despite dropping the first set 2-6 and fought through a tight third set, winning the championship in a tiebreak. Earlier in the year, she took out Williams on the hard courts in Qatar.
Those victories were wrapped around Williams’ straight-sets triumph on the clay courts in Rome, but it’s her dominance in Grand Slams, and particularly at the U.S. Open, that gives her an edge in their fourth battle of the season.
Williams has eliminated the Belarus star in the past two U.S. Opens, including a crushing defeat in the 2012 final.
Azarenka was actually up a break in the third set of that match and within a couple points of winning her first U.S. Open before things crashed down around her. Serena also eliminated the 24-year-old in the round of 32 in the 2011 U.S. Open.
While recent history suggests Azarenka is catching up with the 31-year-old Williams, the overall tally of their tussles tells a different tale. On Sunday, the latest chapter of the growing rivalry will be written.
How Serena Has Looked in the U.S. Open
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It’s difficult to imagine Williams looking and playing any more dominant than she has at this year’s U.S. Open.
Then again, she just seems to be getting better and better at the ripe old age of 31.
As with all her competitors, Williams blasted through Li on Friday, dropping only three games to punch her ticket to the finals.
The powerful and athletic performance is an accurate snapshot of just how good the American has been in defense of her U.S. Open title.
In no match en route to the finals has the 16-time major champion lost more than five games. She’s also managed to win five of her 12 sets at love.
That run included a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing of 18th-seeded Carla Suarez-Navarro in the quarterfinals and a 6-4, 6-1 victory over rising American star Sloane Stephens in the round of 16.
Through it all, Williams has brandished the tournament’s most powerful serve and demonstrated the fitness and athleticism of a player 10 years her junior.
Coming off a shocking fourth-round exit at Wimbledon to Sabine Lisicki and the loss to Azarenka last month, Williams has been absolutely focused during the Open fortnight.
If that continues on Sunday, she is a strong bet to win the fifth U.S. Open in her legendary career and complete a successful defence of her Flushing Meadows title for the first time.
How Azarenka Has Looked in the US Open
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Azarenka has not been as dominant as Williams, but she has managed to work her way through her side of the draw in very good form, and has dropped only two sets in the process.
In fact, the 24-year-old has played perhaps her two best matches of the event leading up to the final.
Azarenka was solid in Friday’s semifinal victory against the Pennetta, winning in straight sets while facing little push back from the Italian throughout the match.
In the quarterfinals, the Belarus star bested veteran Daniela Hantuchova in equally-dominant fashion, 6-2, 6-3.
Considering the ease of those two wins, Azarenka will be well-rested and confident as she looks to defeat Williams in a Grand Slam for the first time.
However, she has given slight pause for concern during her Open fortnight.
Largely due to an inconsistent serve, Azarenka struggled slightly in the middle of her run to a second straight U.S. Open final. She dropped the first set in both her third- and fourth-round matches.
But she managed to rally thanks to a strong service return game and one of the more potent backhands in the game.
Those two attributes have been the consistent part of Azarenka's repertoire at Flushing Meadows, and will be equally important if she is going to defeat Serena for the second straight time this summer.
The Biggest X-Factors
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Confidence is a critical component to success in a Grand Slam final and it’s fair to ask whether Azarenka will have enough of it when she faces Williams.
Not only has Williams toppled Azarenka so many times in Slam events, she has sent her packing in the past two U.S. Opens leading up to this year’s event.
Believing she can turn those results around and tackle Williams in this final is absolutely critical to her chances of actually doing so.
Twice in this year's Open, Azarenka has dropped the first set only to rally and advance against lower-seeded players. Should nerves and doubt result in a similar start against Williams, it’s highly unlikely she will be able to recover.
Yes, Azarenka rallied to beat Williams after dropping the first set at the Western and Southern Open, but the top seed is playing much better at Flushing Meadows and the stakes are considerably higher.
Azarenka has to build on her two victories over Williams this year and truly believe she can topple her. If she doesn't, it will be another quick but merciless U.S. Open ending.
For Williams, her smooth waltz to the final could be both an advantage and a possible problem waiting to happen. She may be well-rested and in top form but she’s also untested.
If Azarenka can get ahead early, it will be interesting to see how the American responds and whether she has the focus to turn the tide against her rapidly-improving rival, who is also seeking a second Slam victory in 2013.
Williams Will Win If.....
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If Williams doesn't change the way she’s played through six matches at Flushing Meadows, it’s going to be extremely difficult for Azarenka to beat her.
It sounds unfair to say, but that’s the plain reality the Belarusian faces heading into a second straight appearance in the Open final.
Williams is playing the best tennis of her life and has never looked more dominant or destined to win a Grand Slam event.
Given Azarenka's win in Cincinnati, it’s unlikely that the American will be anything less than dialed in.
In fact, Williams' strengths are positioned to take advantage of her rival’s recent shortcomings.
Azarenka is struggling with her serve and Williams' return game is in great shape. Likewise, the American has started fast in every match she’s played while Azarenka has struggled out of the gates multiple times in the past two weeks.
If those trends continue, Williams will apply significant pressure to her opponent’s game and force her to take risks she would rather avoid.
The end result will likely be an increase in unforced errors as Williams tightens the screws even further.
Williams is in the best form of her career and only a significant detour from that will deny her another Grand Slam title.
Azarenka Will Win If.....
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Despite playing some relatively uneven tennis by her lofty standards, Azarenka has managed to reach the finals largely because she’s simply been more talented than her competition.
That won’t be the case against Williams and she must raise her level of play if she is going to win.
For Azarenka then, the two most critical questions are whether she can get off to a fast start and if she can hold her serve consistently enough to stay in the match long-term.
Both aspects have been issues during her run, and if she can’t clean them up it will be another disappointing outing for Azarenka.
In the third and fourth round, Azarenka was forced to rally from behind. But in her past two matches Azarenka has done a better job of getting out to solid starts, highlighted by her straight-sets semifinal win over Pennetta on Friday.
It’s a must that Azarenka continues that solid play against Williams, who will undoubtedly look to squash her rising confidence with an early flood of power and energy.
Likewise, Azarenka has to improve her service game, especially on the first ball. Far too often she has surged ahead with key breaks only to hand them back with sloppy service games.
Azarenka has already proven she has the game to beat Williams, and she will have to lift her game to do it again.
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It’s just too difficult to imagine Williams walking off Arthur Ashe Court without a U.S. Open title riding shotgun.
That’s not a slight against Azarenka, but rather appropriate praise for the most dominant player of her era.
Since the beginning of the Open fortnight, Williams has been an absolute assassin. She’s overpowered, out-hustled and otherwise simply dominated every opponent she has drawn.
There’s no doubt Azarenka should be her toughest test but she will be hard-pressed to put enough pressure on the American to avoid the inevitable.
Williams will utilize her world-class return of serve to put significant pressure on Azarenka’s service game and won’t allow many chances for service breaks against her.
To counter, Azarenka will be forced to go for too much from the baseline and that will result in multiple errors.
Williams has yet to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles, but that changes on Sunday and it will happen in straight sets with very little drama.