The US Open Women’s Final: Serena Williams  def. Victoria Azarenka  6-2, 2-6, 7-5
Serena Williams—the owner of fifteen slam titles across three decades, including the 2012 United States Open— and world No. 1, and reigning Australian Open Champion, Victoria Azarenka share an important trait in common. When they take the court, they both make the face of champions. Everyone from Rocky, to Rafael Nadal, to Jack Black, the self-appointed head of the School of Rock n’ Slackerdom, knows that to play the role, you have to look the part.
When Azarenka walked onto Arthur Ashe stadium on Sunday afternoon, she arrived fortified with headphones, a defiant hoodie slung across her blonde crown, and an outrageously long-limbed swagger. Her gaze was focused inward, presumably on her club-beats, and her will to win, or just on things that are much, much cooler than things non-champions think. Every so often Victoria cut her gaze across the stadium, giving it a good eye-killing; she was ready.
But if Azarenka is capable of putting Tina Fey’s collection of Mean Girls to shame, Serena Williams looks like she learned to make her entrance at the Lee Strasberg Institute. From the tunnel to the post-match handshake with the umpire, she is in character, and that character makes opponents shake in their Nikes. During her pre-match interview, Serena’s voice is soft but terse, politely and decidedly dismissive. Unhurried when she walks on court, Williams takes control of the pace before play begins. As with her gentle side-to-side shuffle when she waits to return serve, Serena’s slow promenade belies a warning to her opponents. When she strikes, it will be sudden, it will be lethal, and all that will be left of her opponents is their Nikes. Swoosh!
To top off the effect is Serena’s ‘stop looking at me’ alpha-stare, which is so penetrating that it has been known to reduce its recipients to fits of self-conscious giggles. Between the two of them, the bravado quotient is off the charts. Onlookers who are strangers to tennis can be forgiven for thinking that the level of machismo exhibited by a couple of athletes in flouncy skirts, as they prepare to knock a fuzzy ball around a rectangle for the next two hours and eighteen minutes, could be called excessive, or just a silly diversion. But that’s what tennis is, after all, just a game; a front. However, winning the game, on its biggest playground, is a serious business. To succeed, one must learn to make the face.
Unfortunately, leading up to the tournament final, I was only able to glimpse a few sets of Serena Williams’ basilisk stare (always taking the proper precaution to watch the television through the reflected safety of a hand-mirror in the company of my pet rooster). But no matter, I knew what to expect. I’ve been watching her tear through draws all summer, and was therefore unsurprised to hear about her double-bagel, the glorious serving displays, her cool and collected demeanor, and the absolute supremacy of her tennis game. In 15 sets of tennis, Williams racked up 63 aces and 218 winners. I read about her new coach and her switch to luxilon 4G strings. And I heard the taunts, hurled in the direction of Gilles Simon, suggesting a serving contest against Williams might be the best way to teach the pencil-legged top-twenty ATP player a thing or two about the worth of women. It was a little unclear whether the best way to stage this contest would be to have Serena mock the pace of Simon’s serve with her own, or whether she ought to just serve tennis balls at the Frenchman’s head. Either way, the message was clear; Serena Williams was playing tennis that transcended boundaries.
So when it came time for the final, I was fully prepared to fall into raptures over grandeur of her game. She is, after all, my Roger Federer— my object of tedious tennis hagiography. That Williams was due to demonstrate her greatness against a perfectly respectable world No. 1 only sweetened the pot. Azarenka has an admirable game, particularly when she’s bearing down on the net as she fires away with her double-handed backhand. As with so many of the women, her return of serve is her most aggressive shot, but her aggression is not haphazard. If she doesn’t blast a winner off the return, she takes the time to plot out the best course of action before returning to full attack-mode. Also, she has the fighting spirit to match her champion’s face. There were very few who expected Azarenka to win this match—with a 3-0 head-to-head over the Belarusian in 2012 (9-1 overall) betting odds before the match saw Williams trading as a 5:1 favorite—but it’s probably fair to say that neither did people expect Azarenka to be blown off the court like she was in Madrid or at the Olympics.
Personally, what I expected was a quality fight with an almost foregone conclusion. Through the first eight games, as Serena used her luxilon-strung Wilson to shred the court into acutely-angled bits, it looked like the match would deliver exactly that. Already up 5-2, Williams earned a break-point with an 85 mph return winner that was immediately followed by a pirouette on the baseline. The following point, which ended the set, also included a decorative post-point spin. With one set gone so quickly Williams' way, the match felt more than half done. In the booth, Mary Carillo declared that beating Serena Williams was like “trying to put out a grease fire.” Little did she know that the flames were about to hit the frying pan and no amount of water, or baking soda, or 122 mph aces, would be able to stop the burn.
A tennis match is a co-created psychological event, and as such it’s nearly impossible to trace the roots of momentum shifts or hold one player wholly accountable for either a dip or rise in form. Both cause and effect are overdetermined, and largely unknowable. But when writing up a match, it’s necessary to select a single narrative, ideally one that features the correct cast of characters, and is at least partially coherent, so here’s mine:
For the last two years, the US Open has been a place of emotional turmoil for Serena Williams. She had major meltdowns (MM, if one cares to use the technical acronym) in last year’s finals loss to Sam Stosur, and her 2010 semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters. The reasons for these explosions are also overdetermined, and excellent fodder for an exploration of American culture, but are better left for another time. Suffice it to say for now, when Serena closed out the first set, and came close to casting off the US Open shadow, she got tight. There is an old therapist-adage of which I'm fond, the only thing more frightening than failure is success. Indeed, there quite so efficacious as the imminent threat of success to bring all our favorite neuroses to the surface, snapping like a bale of grumpy alligator turtles. In the space of a 90-seconds between sets, Serena Williams went from dominating her opponent, to oppressing herself. To Victoria Azarenka’s credit, she lifted her own game, and sided with the snapping turtles.
Williams was broken immediately to start the second set, the first time in 38 straight games. She made 6 unforced errors in the first two games, and was called foot-fault in the third game. The crowd made a fuss, but Williams merely took a moment to warn the linesperson not to look in her direction (thereby making his job much more complicated) and closed out the game with her fifth ace of the match. However, by this point, Azarenka had hit something of a stride. As valiantly as Serena struggled to rediscover her lost timing, particularly with the wind in the near court, Victoria refused to let her find it.
Azarenka reversed her fist set fortunes and took the second by a score of 6-2, and with the early break at 2-1, looked far and away the favorite as the third picked up steam. To her fans, Williams looked ready to come off the rails. Instead, fighting Azarenka and her own ghosts, she made the face, and broke back. The third set of US Open final featured some of the best tennis assembled by the two slam champions, with so much on the line, each took thrilling risks. But they also made frightened errors, and their masks slipped, revealing all-too-human bundles of nerves. Case-in-point, at 4-3, Williams was broken again, at love. But, seemingly by sheer force of will, Serena kept her game, and her temper, inside the lines for long enough to break back, to hold, and break again. When Azarenka was up 30-15 in her final service game, with a revised goal of forcing a match-deciding tiebreak, Williams sent a massive forehand winner down the line from well behind the baseline. Afterward, she did a little pirouette. Five points from the end of the match, she had rediscovered her confidence.
Azarenka never gave up, and she played one of my favorite points of the match in the final game, when she sent a booming return-of-serve back to Serena with interest, and followed it forward to finish the point at net. But when both players are champions, when they both know how to fight through their nerves and make the face, the difference is in the tennis. Serena Williams notched 44 winners to 45 errors and fired 13 aces. Victoria Azarenka hit 13 winners to 28 errors and zero aces.
It was far from a beautiful match, but as the first 3 set women’s final at the US Open in sixteen years, it was also far from dull. As so often happens, after the match was over, I found myself feeling more deeply for the athlete who had just been reduced to mere (and all-too familiar) mortality by her loss. Victoria Azarenka, retreated under her towel to cry, and when she emerged, she spoke bravely and graciously, winning the hearts of world-weary New Yorkers in the stands, and countless new twitter followers the world over.
For my part, Serena Williams’ victory celebrations usually feel, if not exactly phony, then superficial. Granted, she’s leaping in the air, clasping her hands to her heart, and cuddling with the trophy; and I do believe she is experiencing very real joy, I just don’t believe we are seeing it. So far as the five-time US Open champion is concerned, I’m inclined to think most of ‘the faces’ we see her make hide as much as they reveal, and that’s ok with me. Watching Serena celebrate her win did not bring me great personal joy, it was not a Hallmark-Kodak-Kleenex moment, but it was genuinely, one could even say deeply, satisfying. Because when Serena Williams can clear an emotional path to play tennis without self-sabotage or restraint—as she did during the first set, and then again for the 10 of the final 12 points, and like she has for most of the summer— it’s a victory for tennis.