For the second time in as many years, Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams will share a Sunday spotlight with the kickoff of an NFL season. The two women will match up in their second consecutive U.S. Open final later in the afternoon, a rematch of one of the better Grand Slam finales in recent memory.
Williams was able to pull out that last match 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, and the world's top-ranked player heads in a minus-475 favorite (h/t Bovada) to pull a repeat.
If you've been paying attention at all in this year's event, you know those massive odds are for good reason. The 31-year-old American has yet to lose a set at Flushing Meadows, rampaging through a cast of characters that included Sloane Stephens and Li Na with ease.
Williams defeated Li 6-0, 6-3 in the semis, a match that saw her extend a consecutive games win streak to 24. While Li's persistence eventually frustrated her top-ranked foe into multiple audible expressions of anger, the match—like almost every other one from Williams—was never in question.
The same cannot be said for Azarenka, who had to claw her way to the final against Flavia Pennetta. Although the 6-4, 6-2 score seemingly denotes dominance, both women walked away from the match thinking they left something on the court. Only five times did either woman hold serve. Luckily for the Belarusian, she represented four of those and moved on.
The win brought her record to 31-1 on hard surfaces this season, best on the WTA. She'll also be looking to sweep the hard-court Grand Slams, having won her second consecutive Australian Open earlier this year.
It certainly won't be easy, though, with Williams boasting a 66-4 record in 2013 with eight titles. But Azarenka represents half of those losses. So anything is possible.
With that in mind, let's check in with a complete preview of Sunday's showcase, highlighting a key for each player.
When: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City
Keys to the Match
Victoria Azarenka: Avoid Being Overpowered
The first thing even the most lay tennis fans notice about Williams is the prodigious power in her game. She peppers courts—especially hard surfaces—with two-handed backhands laced in near triple-digit speeds and hits serves hard enough to take a racket out of your hand.
Because she covers the court arguably better than any player in the world, Williams is also able to hit those hard shots more often. These are professional tennis players; anyone can hit a hard shot when her feet are set. But Williams is so great because she combines ripping shots with elite court coverage, which often sends her opponents dizzying themselves just trying to keep up with returns.
Heading into the final, Williams has won 80 percent of her first-serve points. Heck, she's even won 55 percent of her second serves. Even an opponent like Stephens, who is built almost perfectly in the Serena 2.0 mold, was forced into errors or committed unnecessary gaffes because Williams had her on skates.
The reason Azarenka has been able to defeat Williams twice this year is because she's been able to avoid those situations for the most part. The 24-year-old has both young legs and a 6'0" frame that allows her to cover the court without ever being put on tilt. No player at this year's Open has won more first-serve or second-serve return points.
Azarenka is like Novak Djokovic in that fashion, riding the baseline and hitting a series of precision shots that in turn force her opponent into being the aggressor and making mistakes. There's a reason she's won eight more break points than any other player in this event.
That said, Azarenka knows her previous opponents and Williams are on a different stratosphere. She's going to need to rise her game once more and break Williams at least once in each set because there's no way she's taking each of her service games. Azarenka is definitely one of the few women with the capability of curtailing her opponent's power. Doing so is easier said than done.
Serena Williams: Stay Composed
Williams' fiery competitiveness is arguably what has propelled her to these lofty heights. In a career that's seen multiple starts and stops—particularly due to injury and relative disinterest in the sport—Williams probably could have walked away multiple times. Her last Grand Slam could have been at Wimbledon in 2010, and everyone would have still looked fondly back on her career.
But ever since her return from a blood clot, Williams' passion for the sport has returned in a big way. She's outwardly competitive in a way that is usually reserved for men. She pumps her fists, screams at herself and opponents and will shove that ball down a damn lineswoman's throat if it means helping add to her Slam total.
That competitiveness has made her who she is today. It's also come back to haunt her numerous times, leading to confounding upsets and countless hand-wringing columns about what could have been. The temper has probably cost Williams one or two additional major-tournament victories.
Even in matches where she's obviously ahead, Williams sometimes cannot help her temper. In her dominant win over Li, the match lasted probably at least 15 minutes longer than it should have because of mistakes Williams made while frustrated. She looked over to her corner multiple times in the match as Li made a semi-comeback and then held off six match points, almost as if to say, "Why won't you die?"
Watching the match you could almost bite through the tension. At one point, with Li a point away from going up 3-1 in the second set, you could almost see the meltdown coming. But Williams righted the ship, mostly because she was the most talented player in the match by the distance of the Long Island Sound.
Outward displays of emotion are good. Jarring petulance? Not so much.
Similar expressions of frustration won't fly against Azarenka. The Belarusian isn't at that second-tier level of talent, nor is she intimidated by Williams' over-the-top nature. Azarenka is arguably the best hard-court player in the world and has confidence coming off her defeat of Williams in the Western & Southern Open.
These two are in the same stratosphere. Any meltdowns, no matter how remote, will be taken advantage of. Enough to win? That remains to be seen.
Despite Azarenka's undeniable talent, there's a reason Williams' section essentially reads like the "calm down, bro" meme. She's the best player in the world, absolutely overpowering to even the world's best at times. And she has so much success at Flushing Meadows, I half expect a court there to be renamed after her someday.
Just to recap Williams' dominance at the U.S. Open this year: She's lost only 16 games—just six of those have come in closing sets. She's won 80 percent of her first-serve points. No one has even remotely sniffed the remote stratosphere of making anyone even think an upset is possible.
Azarenka is better than the women who came before her, but her fate won't be different. Look for Williams to capture her second straight U.S. Open in her seventh consecutive straight-sets victory.
Serena Williams def. Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-3
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