Behind the scenes the ATP’s political fights simmered, while on court tonight another battle raged fierce. Yes, in the western sky a whisper of a new moon lingered above the mountains. But on Indian Wells’s Stadium 1, an old rivalry was rekindled.
Never mind that the BNP Paribas Open had hardly started – this was a face-off between two super-moms that tennis had never seen before. The temperatures were cold, but the fight was hot. Serena had a commanding 17-4 head-to-head lead over Victoria Azarenka. But the last time they’d played, when they’d not yet become mothers, Vika prevailed – in the 2016 BNP Paribas Open final.
Today, International Women’s Day, two incredible international women stepped out. One is Belarusian, the other is “straight outta Compton.” Both have long been passionate advocates of women’s rights and dignity. Together they treated adoring but freezing fans, bundled in blankets, to a dazzling display of athleticism, fury and power.
Neither of these grand champions are shy or quiet – “Pow, pop, wham, wop, humph, oooh.” Mary Carillo quipped, “There is some nice voice coming from these two.” Lindsay Davenport added, “That’s a good sign for Serena. When she’s loud, she’s invested.”
Simply put, the second-round match between the two former No. 1’s was a radiant gem that gave us so much: early on-the-rise strikes, deep kiss-the-baseline groundies, severe angles, whiplash changes of direction, lean-in returns of serve, astonishing defense-to-offense, and an “I want this – this is mine!” competitiveness from two intense warriors who have brought us so much joy.
Together Serena and Vika had won three times in the desert and had taken home a total of 25 Slam titles. Both mothers have struggled mightily upon returning from their pregnancies. Williams used the word “arduous.” Yes, she has reached two Slam finals – amazing. Yet she’s had many a tough setback, and she was dismissed by Karolina Pliskova in the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Azarenka made a strong run in the 2018 Miami Open, but she could not sustain the imposing form that once had made her one of the WTA’s most feared hard-court players, and she’s now ranked only No. 48.
Ten times in the first set, Vika and Serena broke each other’s serve. But, as the opening set went on, Serena’s serve became a factor, while Azarenka faltered on ten break points. Williams inched ahead, broke serve and was up 5-3, 30-0 – just two points from capturing the first set. Then Vika launched a stunning counter-attack. “I love the energy and attitude Azarenka has brought,” said Davenport. “She’s showing no disappointment or getting down on herself. A lot of players get down if they get behind against Serena.”
Azarenka broke back and evened the first set 5-5. Then Williams launched another surge and finally, after 1:11 of jaw-dropping battle Serena unleashed one of her astounding power shots, a fierce down-the-line return of a second serve that gained her the first set 7-5. Some in the press room said this was the best WTA set of the year.
The two moms were playing their best tennis since their comebacks. In the second set, Serena’s returns soared – and Azarenka’s dipped. In the eighth game Williams’s power sent Vika reeling. Then she netted a backhand to give Serena a key break and go up 5-3. A furious Azarenka pounded the ball into the court in frustration – Serena’s storm was too mighty to contain.
The crowd called out for more – and Azarenka did not go quietly into the desert night. But on her third match point Serena scored an ace, to give her a 7-5, 6-3 win, after 2:07. The two embraced warmly at the net. Serena told the crowd, “I truly love her.”
Amidst the extensive commentary on International Women’s Day, writer Bonnie Ford said, “I look forward to the day when we don’t have to designate days to promote equality.” Still, this evening (which was also “Salute to Heroes Night,” to honor warriors) featured two astounding athletic heroes who gave us an encounter that seemed perfectly scripted for International Women’s Day.
After the match Azarenka offered a passionate commentary that seemed just right on a day that celebrates women. Vika, who’d left the Aussie Open in tears, spoke about the Nike Super Bowl ad she’s in that calls for women’s empowerment. She told IT: “I felt that it was an amazing moment for women in sport. I feel it showed the great vulnerability that exists…People don’t really talk about it. We talk about being tough, being strong, being focused. And we are all that, but we are also human with vulnerable feelings and emotions. We get hurt, and people see that…[So] why can’t we do that and celebrate and support each other and show what we are about? We just want to support equality. That’s everybody’s right. There is no discrimination about men or women. We are just women who want to be better women.
“It’s one of my goals to try to pave the way for women in sports who have kids…and I feel the Nike ad was in great support of that. I hope [Nike is] going to continue to…push those boundaries.”
To a stadium full of people, it was clear on this night that the two formidable mothers of little Leo and growing-before-our-eyes Olympia definitely pushed boundaries.