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Azarenka stops Serena short

Victoria Azarenka is making an incredible journey, from not having won a match for over a year or so, to reaching the final of the US Open with a win over Serena Williams on Thursday night, after collecting the title at the Western & Southern Open a couple of weeks ago on the way.

She dug me in a big hole in the first set. I had to climb my way out of there, one by one, and I was happy to turn it around, because it wasn't easy, for sure... I think it's the daily work I've been doing to find that calm mind and match it with an excited body, because I had to keep moving and bringing the energy. There's no crowd to get energy from, so I had to give it to myself! Victoria Azarenka

For Williams, it was, once again, a stumble before she could get her hands on her illusive 24th Grand Slam title to equal the record of Margaret Court, and she stumbled after dominating the first set and then gradually easing her foot off the gas as Azarenka got her measure.

The unseeded Belarusian’s record against Williams was a miserable 4-18 overall, and 0-10 in majors, and she had faltered badly when she was serving against Serena for the 2013 US Open title.

“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger,” Azarenka has reflected. “I want to believe that and I’m going to work hard for it.

“Sometimes I just need a little time and patience and a little support.”

Azarenka has struggled, with off-court custody issues relating to her son, Leo, involving depositions and legal  battles in California and Belarus, while on court she has endured tough draws and unimpressive rankings.

Coming to New York in mid-August after 5 months of lockdown due to coronavirus, she was just happy to be taking part, displaying a a changed attitude and casting aside past losses.

On Wednesday she confessed that she had never enjoyed tennis, until now, and she is having a ball as the former World No 1 got the better of her old foe to reach her first Grand Slam final for 7 years.

Williams, also a mother, looked supreme in the first set as a US Open final rematch against Naomi Osaka beckoned, but Azarenka fought back superbly to win, 1-6 6-3 6-3.

After emphatically dismissing Elise Mertens, 6-1 6-0, to reach the US Open semi-finals, Azarenka revealed her secret weapon: her mother’s cooking.

The Belarusian has been one of the few players to opt for private housing along with Milos Raonic, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.

She also has her mother on hand to help make the house a home and take care of 3-year-old Leo.

“She’s one of the best cooks I’ve ever seen in my life,” the World No 27 said. “I’ve been to Michelin star restaurants so I’m going to give all props to my mom. She’s the best.

“Sometimes she makes two main courses. It’s like a restaurant. I’m spoiled that way. My team are spoiled as well.

“We’ve been enjoying some home cooked meals, which is something so precious in the bubble life. I definitely have the advantage of that.”


Victoria Azarenka (R) and Serena Williams are good friends off the court but this is the first time Vika has beaten Serena in 11 attempts at a major.

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Williams began the second semi-final of the evening in imperious form with a double break advantage before Azarenka got on the board and began making in-roads on the American’s serve, forcing her to save a break point in the first extended game of the match.

Williams responded in her inimitable style, out-rallying Azarenka to earn set points, converting her second with a forehand put-away.

“She dug me in a big hole in the first set,” Azarenka admitted. “I had to climb my way out of there, one by one, and I was happy to turn it around, because it wasn’t easy, for sure.”

In the second set, Williams created a break point in the two-time Australian Open champion’s opening service game, only to net a backhand return as Azarenka evened the score and turned the tables, edging ahead by a break of her own.

“I think it’s the daily work I’ve been doing to find that calm mind and match it with an excited body, because I had to keep moving and bringing the energy,” she continued. “There’s no crowd to get energy from, so I had to give it to myself!”

“She dug me in a big hole in the first set,” Azarenka admitted. “I had to climb my way out of there, one by one, and I was happy to turn it around, because it wasn’t easy, for sure.”

In the second set, Williams created a break point in the two-time Australian Open champion’s opening service game, only to net a backhand return as Azarenka evened the score and turned the tables, edging ahead by a break of her own.

“I think it’s the daily work I’ve been doing to find that calm mind and match it with an excited body, because I had to keep moving and bringing the energy,” she continued. “There’s no crowd to get energy from, so I had to give it to myself!”

The No 3 seed twice fell behind break point at 2-4, saving the second with a thunderous serve, but Azarenka was undaunted, holding for 5-3 and closed out a near-perfect set with 12 winners to just 1 unforced error, hitting her 12th winner, an inside-out backhand, on set point.

Williams was not helped by a jarred ankle early in the deciding set that required a medical timeout for a tape job, her latest bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title seemingly ebbing away.

Azarenka sat in a sideline seat, eyes closed, calm and composed as can be, absorbing the 5-minute delay.

When the action resumed, the American raised the force of her shots and the volume of her shouts, and as she stood 4 points from defeat, she bravely served to stay in the match and made Azarenka serve it out.

As the Belarusian moved to match point there was a last twist when Williams challenged Azarenka’s delivery, which was ultimately ruled in by Hawkeye, sealing the win for the former World No 1 after a battle that lasted just short of 2 hours on an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, with the roof closed as rain thundered down outside.

Azarenka will face Naomi Osaka for the championship on Saturday in a meeting between 2-time major champions, who have both been ranked No 1 in the past.

“It’s been 6 years? That’s my favourite number. I guess that’s meant to be. I’m very grateful for this opportunity,” said Azarenka, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and lost to Williams in the US Open finals each of those two years.

“On the road to the final, you have to beat the best players and today was that day.”

It was a clean match from both women, with Williams striking more winners, 35 to 24, but also more errors, 28 to 17.

She was unable to engineer a break point in the final set, however, and Azarenka, by contrast, struck 20 of her winners in the final 2 sets, and dropped just 4 points behind her first serve in the decider.

This was Williams’ 4th consecutive 3-setter in New York and although she was far better at the outset on Thursday, racing to a 4-0 lead inside of 15 minutes, Azarenka got the measure of her serve and gradually neutralised her weapons.

In the earlier semi-final on Thursday, Osaka extended her winning streak to 10 with her 7-6(1) 3-6 6-3 win over Jennifer Brady in a hard-hitting match filled with fast serves and strong forehands.

Azarenka and Osaka were supposed to play in the final of the Western & Southern Open, the hard-court event moved from Ohio to New York this year as part of a two-tournament ‘controlled environment’ with the US Open amid the pandemic, but Osaka withdrew because of an injured left hamstring.

The loss left Williams just short of No 24 yet again, having also been beaten in the finals of four of the preceding seven Grand Slams, including at Flushing Meadows in 2018 and 2019.

“I started really strong,” said Williams. “Then she just kept fighting. She just changed and started playing better and better.

“Maybe I took a little too much off the gas pedal at some point. She played really well.

“It’s obviously disappointing. At the same time, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”

The pair are good friends, and Williams paid tribute to Azarenka’s resilience saying: “She’s had a lot of, I would say, downs in her career. She started on a lot of highs.

“I don’t know how she stayed positive, to be honest. That’s a good lesson for all of us. No matter what, you just got to keep going. Hopefully she keeps living her dream.”

With her 39th birthday a little more than two weeks away, the question still is ‘can she do it’? With Paris just  a couple of weeks away, Williams will get another chance pretty soon.


Serena Williams looked to have an iron grip of the semi-final in the first set but ultimately succumbed to Victoria Azarenka who advances to the final.

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images



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