Serena Williams’ latest bid for a 24th Grand slam singles title ended as Victoria Azarenka rolled back the years to succeed in the US Open final.
Williams, seeking to equal the all-time record for majors, raced away in the initial set but lost 1-6 6-3 6-3 to the inspired former world No.1. The American called on the trainer for an Achilles problem early during the third set and struggled physically from then. Azarenka will meet Japan’s 2018 champion Naomi Osaka in the final.
Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka had been appearing in her first Grand slam semi-final since 2013 after troubled times on and off the court.
But she has been in fantastic form in recent weeks, having now won 11 matches in a straight run after victory at the Western & Southern Open just before the US Open.
The two players were once regular opponents on the higher stages – but this was their first encounter in the latter stages of the tournament since a Wimbledon quarter-final in 2015. The two good friends have had maternity leaves since then and Azarenka’s career was also stalled by lengthy litigation over her son.
Williams had dominated their head-to-heads, winning 18 of their 22 encounters so far, including back-to-back wins during the 2012 and 2013 US Open finals. And so far she had won all 10 of their Grand slam matches.
Williams has been carrying the pressure of the non-public issues and public expectation of comparable Margaret Court’s titles, while Azarenka is enjoying the liberty that has come only recently since she admitted she was finally enjoying her sport.
It had seemed like Williams was on top during the match, racing through the first set in ruthless fashion in 35 minutes, but a missed backhand to place her 2-0 up during the second set marked the start of a change in tide. When Azarenka launched a blistering backhand winner cross-court then match became an encounter of the highest quality. Williams’ screams got louder but her intensity dropped and a forehand into the net gave the Belarusian two set points, the one of which she converted.
The American, who had played back-to-back three-setters, then needed treatment on her foot while trailing 1-0 40-40 during the third set. While Williams had a huge amount of strapping applied, Azarenka sat with her eyes closed meditating in her chair. She kept calm to interrupt immediately on the restart and eventually sealed the victory with an ace – via a desperate Hawk-Eye challenge from Williams.
“I needed to find the energy to climb out of the hole and it wasn’t easy,” said Azarenka, who has said she contemplated retirement sometimes in recent years. “Hopefully it inspires women to go after their dreams, they can do anything.”
Williams has made no secret of her burning desire to record but opportunities are running out, who turns 39 later this month. With six of the world’s top 10 players absent from Flushing Meadows due to the COVID-19, plus an early exit for top seed Karolina Pliskova, this was a golden opportunity for Williams. She has not won a major since the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant, and since returning to the tour after having her daughter she has lost four slam finals.
The fact that she is making it this deep into majors – and performing so well sometimes – should still offer her encouragement. She doesn’t need to wait long for her next opportunity for a slam title, after confirming she is going to “definitely” play at the rescheduled French Open in two weeks’ time.