Saturday September 6th, 2014

NEW YORK -- Two feel-good stories of rebound and resurrection will come together when No. 1 Serena Williams meets No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki in the U.S. Open women's final on Sunday.

Williams, the two-time defending champion, is seeking her record-tying sixth title. Looming even larger is the prospect of capturing her 18th major title, which would tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for the second most in the Open Era behind Steffi Graf (22). A victory would salvage a poor Slam season for the 32-year-old Williams.

Wozniacki has returned to a major final for the first time in five years. Back then she was well on her way to becoming No. 1, a position she would seize in 2010 and hold for two consecutive years. Criticized at the time for being a "Slam-less No. 1," she'll have an opportunity on Sunday to get her first major title. 

The uniqueness of Serena Williams

Here's a breakdown of the match:

Head-to-head: Serena leads 8-1 and has won their last five matches. Three of those five have gone the full three sets. The two played twice this summer, with Serena winning 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in Montreal and 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in Cincinnati. 

Why Serena will winIt's hard to fathom that, after arguably the best season of her 19-year career, it took Williams until the final Slam of the year to advance past the fourth round. That this run comes just two months after she stumbled out of Wimbledon with a bizarre doubles retirement that left everyone wondering, "What the heck is going on with Serena?" is just so ... Serena.

She entered the North American summer hard-court season with something to prove. There were now critics to silence, challengers to vanquish, and history to make. Her game finally came together: She won Stanford playing subpar tennis, but it was in Cincinnati where she finally found the rhythm on her serve en route to the title. From there, it's been pure dominance. 

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Williams has not come close to losing a set this tournament. Here's how she's won her 12 sets: 6-3, 6-1, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. She's spent a minimal time on court and comes in rested.

Even though her last two matches with Wozniacki went three sets, Williams is playing far better now. She has the power to hit through Wozniacki's defense, and the Dane's second serve should be a feast for Serena's return. 

Why Wozniacki will win: A month before her Wimbledon retirement and third-round loss to Alize Cornet, Williams lost in the second round of the French Open to 20-year-old Spanish talent Garbine Muguruza. The 6-2, 6-2 loss was, by games, her worst defeat at a Slam. She returned to Florida and invited her friend Wozniacki to join her. Wozniacki was still trying to process the sudden end of her engagement to Rory McIlroy. The three-minute phone call from McIlroy that ended their relationship came just a week before the French Open.

Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki set up intriguing U.S. Open final

Wozniacki lost her first-round match in Paris and put on a brave face as she addressed the media for the first time since the break-up. Then she high-tailed it out of there and spent the week with Williams. They hung out on the beach. They took in a Miami Heat game. And they talked through their personal woes. 

Since then Wozniacki has been on a tear. She is 25-5 since the French Open (she was 15-9 for the year before that). She is, by my eye, playing the best tennis of her career. Her serve is better. She's stepping in and actually going for winners, something she didn't do even when she was No. 1.
The highlight of her run to the final was a hard-earned three-set win over fifth-seeded Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. All the hunger and desire was evident in the final set, as Wozniacki showed grit to prevail 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 in two hours and 37 minutes. Wozniacki said it was one of the biggest wins of her career, and she followed it with victories over Sara Errani and Peng Shuai. She has the defense that can frustrate a big hitter like Williams, and she broke Serena a whopping seven times in Cincinnati.

It's possible that Wozniacki will hold the mental edge on Sunday. She's already proved so much by getting back into the U.S. Open final. Meanwhile, Williams has said this season would be a failure if she doesn't pick up No. 18 here. Wozniacki is in a position to go for broke and, in the way athletes like to delude themselves, play as if she has nothing to lose. Williams can't say the same.
What Williams said: "I think the crowd plays a big, big importance. And hopefully being an American, we really want to see this American tennis do well. It's so great to have that opportunity with so many young American players coming up now. It's just so exciting. We have to root, I think, for the home country. I feel like the crowd understands that and they do that, especially throughout the years. It's been wonderful. I have been really enjoying that lately."

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What Wozniacki said: "She looks like she's firing out there at the moment. She's obviously a great player. She's won so many Grand Slams. She's a good friend of mine. We were saying when the tournament started, 'Yes, we're in separate sides of the draw, so hopefully we can meet in the finals.' When she's on fire, she's hard to beat. But I have had two tough matches against her the last few weeks. I was really close. Hopefully for me that would be third time's the charm."

Prediction: Serena in straight sets. She's too close to let this go now. 

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