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SERENA KEEPS THE DREAM ALIVE AT ASHE
When the rains stopped and the winds calmed; when the poignant ceremony for Andre Agassi ended and the beautiful people in the luxury suites stopped sipping their Chardonnays, it came down to what the great Jimmy Connors once said: “This is what they want, this is what they paid for.”
After 17 lean years of rather desolate finals, the U.S. Open finally got itself a suitable conclusion – Serena Williams over Victoria Azarenka in three sizzling sets.
Azarenka – the Aussie Open champion and the No. 1 player in the world, is a fierce ball striker with a hefty shriek and a louder future. Earlier this year, she won 26 straight matches – hurray! She went home from the Olympics with two medals – well done! But against Serena she had lost nine of their ten matches. Williams had crushed her at the Olympics, Wimbledon, Madrid and at last year’s Open. You get the picture.
So did reporters who asked her if her goal was just to make the final a competitive match. Vika bristled. Still she said Serena was the toughest player in tennis and she would have to do something to surprise her. So, asked a writer, would she watch videos of their old matches? “Well,” said Azarenka, “I don’t want to be depressed. There is not really something that you can look at.”
There is much you can debate about Serena Williams. Is her serve the best stroke in the history of the game? Is she, at her core, a nice young woman? Were her father’s predictions that she and Venus would become the two best players on the circuit, the best prediction in sports history? Does her ongoing boycott of Indian Wells make sense? Is she better then Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova and the best player of all time?
But one thing cannot be denied about Serena. She has had the most tumultuous career in tennis, maybe in all of sports. She’s seen it all: crowds howling at her when she was a teen, shock victories, bad break-ups, the Serena slam, the murder of her sister, cutting her foot on glass at a bar, a blood clot which brought her near death and this remarkable year when she suffered a devastating first-round loss at the French Open and then roared back to win singles and doubles at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Yet, going into the U.S. Open she said her prime intention was to stay calm. “My goal this year was not to get in any fights.” After all, in her last two Opens, Serena had tantrums after being called for a foot-fault in 2009 and hindrance of Sam Stosor last year. But against Azarenka it seemed like there would be no hindrances whatsoever, as Serena broke fast from the gate, served like a demon, stroked punishing groundies and raced to a 6-2 first-set win.
As her fans shouted, tennis analysts presumed, just like her Olympic final, we were on our way to another blow-out final. Yawn.
But Azarenka, stepped in and started to return with fire. She moved well, stroked deep, power groundies and volleyed with conviction. All the while, Serena’s (awesome just a moment ago) serve went limp. Her ground strokes fell flat into the net or flew long. Basically she went and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on us. As in the Wimbledon final against Agnie Radwanska, she dropped the second set.
“I like living on the edge too much,” Serena said later. But unlike Wimbledon, she didn’t simply regroup and prevail. Rather, Azarenka returned brilliantly, set her feet, pounded her groundies, ran a slightly tired Serena side to side and moved forward when she could. Simply put, she smelled blood. The great Serena could be taken down, what a triumph. If she prevailed, she would arguably be the Player of the Year. Suffering few errors and scrambling well, Vika hit a brave backhand on the service line, scored two breaks to gain a 5-3 lead. But tennis is all about closing and winning the last point.
Instead, Vika blinked rather badly. Up 5-4 and serving for the championship with new balls, she suffered two backhand errors in a dismal game. Vika crumbled, Serena broke.
Youth and vigor appeal. But (sorry Maria Sharapova) Serena is the toughest battler in the game – pure steel. Now as the throng sounded a deafening roar with a power no other tennis crowd can match, Serena moved in and pinned her foe. When a last Azarenka backhand flew long, Serena fell on her back. Sweet victory was hers 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. She had her fourth U.S. Open, her 15th major and she had concluded a Grand Slam year of golden wonder unlike anything since Steffi Graf’s Golden Slam season in 1988.
For her part, Azarenka sunk her head in a towel and later shared her appreciation and her sorrow. “Every time I play Serena it pushes me forward … [But] being so close it hurts deeply to know you don’t have it , you’re close, you didn’t get it … For me she is the greatest player of all time … [But] I just got a message from my family and they said, ‘We love you,’ so I don’t need any more words … That’s the most important.”
What was most important to USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith, was to toast the new Open champion. He raised a bottle of Champagne and told Serena, “You are the greatest champion, and you prevailed in the greatest final of the greatest championships.”
When Inside Tennis asked Serena to reflect on her tumultuous career with all its ups and downs, she said, “I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall. I have fallen several times. Each time I just get up and dust myself off and I pray and I’m able to do better or I’m able to get back to the level that I want to be on.
“So I feel really awesome … For me … you see great people like Muhammad Ali, for instance, who is complete person I have always looked up to in sports. He went to jail for so long and he came back as a champion again. So … that really defines a champion.”
So we asked her if after all she went through at her last two Opens and losing so badly at the French Open, does this win mean even more.
Serena replied, “Oh, for sure. I was in the hospital last year … so it means a lot. To win Wimbledon is always so special, but coming to your home country and winning this one … its just awesome. And to win two in a year, its great.”
As for the future, Serena said, “I’m just so motivated to stay focused. I just feel like I’m ready for the next tournament. I really want to do well and keep the dream alive.”