NEW YORK -- Victoria Azarenka offered a scouting report late Friday afternoon for what appears to be an impossible task at this year's U.S. Open: Beating Serena Williams.
"You've got to fight, you've got to run, you've got to grind, and you've got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have," said Azarenka, who meets Williams in the women's final on Sunday afternoon. "She's obviously an amazing player. She's the greatest of all time."
That last sentence remains up for debate but Serena's level of dominance is unlike anything we've seen (on the women's side) at this tournament in recent vintage. On Friday she dismantled Li Na 6-0, 6-3 in 1 hour and 27 minutes, and has rolled up ridiculous statistics along the journey: Williams has dropped just 16 games during this tournament, her lowest total ever entering the final of a Grand Slam event. (Serena's previous lowest dropped games entering a major final was 19 at last year's U.S. Open.) She also leads all women players at the U.S. Open with 36 percent of her serves unreturned (92 of 259) and she's near the top with 64 percent of her first serves in. If the greatest player debate remains open, what is not up for debate is who has the best first serve in the history of the women's game. The answer is Serena Williams.
The last time the U.S. Open singles final featured the same women in back-to-back years was 2001 and 2002 when Serena and Venus Williams met, but we have arrived at the moment again. This will be the 16th career meeting between the players and while Serena holds a 12-3 advantage, Williams and Azarenka have split the last four meetings including a win by Vika last month in the finals of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. That match -- a 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) edge-of-your-seat thriller -- spanned 2 hours and 29 minutes and clearly will give Azarenka confidence. Williams had her chances in the tiebreak but missed an easy open court shot and double-faulted late.
"I definitely feel like when she plays me she plays her best by far," Williams said. "I have seen her play other players, and when I play her, I'm playing a totally different player. Obviously she brings her best game."
Serena looks like a different player a month later. On Friday in front of a near-full Arthur Ashe Stadium that hoped for something better, Williams bageled Li in 29 minutes to win the first set. It was part of Serena winning 24 consecutive games before Li finally ended the shutout streak in the second set. The CBS announcing team of Bill Macatee, John McEnroe and Mary Carillo discussed after the match if Serena was playing the best tennis in the history of the game. It's a fair question. The best single-season record in the women's game based on percentage came in 1983 when Martina Navratilova rolled to a 86-1 record. Steffi's Graf 1988 campaign, where she captured a Golden Slam (all four majors and the Olympics) and finished 72-3, is also always in the conversation. Serena is 66-4 in 2013 with eight titles.
Serena has always been mentally strong but she now has the footwork and court coverage to match her steel. She fights for points no matter the score, and against Li, she tracked down lobs, played brilliant defensive tennis and showed smart thinking by wrong-footing her opponent often. The best moment on Friday in either semifinal came in the eighth game of the final set between Li and Serena. Li saved six match points in a 13-minute game to hold, but Serena's effort was even more impressive given that she was up a break and knew she could still win the match on her racket.
Azarenka is 42-4 in 2013 but if she starts as slowly as she did in her 6-4, 6-2 semifinal win over Italian Flavia Pennetta, Serena will win in a rout. Azarenka held serve just four times in the match, had six double faults and finished the match with 15 winners and 25 unforced errors. It's been an odd tournament for Vika: She's the spent much more time on the court than Williams and has lost 40 games heading into the final.
Still, she has played Williams as tough as anyone over the last 24 months. Asked why she has matched up so well with Serena this year, Azarenka said it was tough to say. "I think that the battles that we had, it was really just taking each other out of the most comfortable zone and just fight for every ball," Azarenka said. "We know each other pretty well. I know her strengths; she knows my strengths. That's what it's all about, about those turning points, who wants it more, who's willing to go for it more."
The standings will not change on Sept. 9 regardless of the result. Williams will remain No. 1, with Azarenka chasing her. It would be foolish to concede the title to Williams given recent history between the players but this tournament has been about Serena's dominance. Azarenka will have to raise her level significantly in order to prevent Serena from her 17th major title.
"I know her game as well as she knows mine," Williams said. "She knows what I do great, what I do bad, and what I can do better. I know the same thing. At this point, it's just about playing some tennis now."