By Jane Voigt
Victoria Azarenka controlled the last game of her semifinal match, plus a couple others. It was enough, though, as she won the privilege of advancing to her second consecutive final at the U. S. Open over Flavia Pennetta.
Azarenka’s gushy demeanor after she shook Pennetta’s hand and kissed checks at the net, per normal in women’s tennis, seemed a touch overdone for all her lousy serve stats (6 double faults in 2 sets), missed opportunities, and slipshod volleys.
Brad Gilbert coined the phrase ‘winning ugly,’ and used it as the title of his best-selling book on tennis strategy. He hung around a match long enough — through winning ugly — that he made a career or it.
Victoria Azarenka is not a winning-ugly player; she is capable of much better tennis than she demonstrated this afternoon on Arthur Ashe Stadium. If she wants her first Open title, her last round in Flushing Meadows has to be transformative.
After 13 games, there had been 10 breaks of serve. And Azarenka won the match, 64 62.
The No. 2 seed had won only 57% of points on her first serve and 34% on second serves. Before the semifinal, she had wracked up 25 double faults. Perhaps the knee and hip injury from her fall at Wimbledon continued to bother her. She did not use her legs to propel her body up toward the tossed ball, to get up over the ball, and, most importantly, to help keep her ground game steady.
Flavia Pennetta, who had barreled through the draw without dumping a set, oared the same boat as Azarenka. The Italian, playing in her first-ever major semifinal, won 48% of her first service points, and a dastardly 22% off her second serves. But two badly gauged serves don’t make for a righteous tennis match, especially for one at this level of the game.
“We didn’t serve really well, both of us,” Pennetta admitted in her press conference. “But in the end she’s powerful player. She have more power than me.”
The match, therefore, became a return-of-serve encounter. Azarenka, one of the best returners on tour, held the 31-year-old veteran’s feet to the fire once the point got going. Her offensive nature — to fight — made a marked difference as Pennetta rifled her formidable ground strokes back toward Azarenka in an effort to keep the ball in play, which is the goal really. But not if you want to disassemble Azarenka’s game.
Pennetta dominated points when she dictated play — drove her groundstrokes deep and changed the direction of the ball using crisp footwork. But these tactics were few and far between and came mostly in the second, and last, set.
“I didn’t went for a big, big winner all the time,” Pennetta began. “In the end I was trying. I was much better. But because I didn’t want to miss so much, today, I didn’t hit so hard the ball. We had a lot of rallies more than 20 balls. But she’s stronger than me, and in the end she was winning more points than me.”
Azarenka’s record on hard courts this year is 31-1, including her win today. Her best finish in New York was last year — the finalist to Serena William’s 4th U. S. Open title. Azarenka has played in 2 semifinals at Wimbledon (2011, 2012) and one in Paris (2012). She holds two Australian Open slam titles from 2012, 2013.
For all her flawed tennis today, Azarenka completed the simple task at hand … she won. At the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, she played sub-par tennis through to the final. Serena Williams was across the net. Azarenka lost the first set in a flash — 2-6. In the second, her rhythm caught up with her. She won it 6-2. The third was a battle. ‘Vika’ had risen from the ashes in full form. She played Williams toe-to-toe.
The match ended in a tiebreak, which fit the crescendo. Azarenka took the match 7-6(6) in the third. It was the second time she had defeated Williams this year.
The two women will get another chance to settle the score on Sunday because Serena defeated Li Na in the second semifinal today 60 63.
What does Serena think about the re-match final?
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Serena told fans on court. “She always lifts her game at the right time.”