Victoria Azarenka (right) trails Serena Williams 12-3, but has won their last two hard-court meetings. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
In a match that seemed inevitable when the draw was released two weeks ago, No. 1 Serena Williams will face No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open final on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS). It will be a rematch of last year's final, which Williams won 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. Azarenka served for the match at 5-4 before Williams came up with her best tennis of the day to take advantage of Azarenka's bout of nerves.
That match served as a catalyst for Azarenka's continued improvement, particularly on hard courts. She has now made the final of the last four hard-court Grand Slam tournaments and won two of them, both at the Australian Open. She is 31-1 on hard courts this year, her only loss coming to Sam Stosur in the Southern California Open in her first tournament after Wimbledon.
Perhaps most newsworthy is the fact that Azarenka, who is 3-12 against Williams, has won their last two hard-court meetings. Against nearly anyone else in the draw, it would be easy to just chalk up Sunday's final as another straight-set domination by Williams, who hasn't lost a set this tournament. But those two wins, both in finals, give you pause. And it's hard not wonder whether they give Williams pause as well.
"I definitely feel like when she plays me she plays her best, by far," Williams said after her 6-0, 6-3 win over Li Na in the semifinals. "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."
Azarenka has made it no secret that she relishes the challenge of playing Williams, whom she calls "the greatest of all time."
"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. "Because 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."
Azarenka's "who wants it more" sports-speak may feel like an empty cliché, but when it comes to this burgeoning rivalry, there might be something to it. Her two victories over Williams this year, a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 win in Doha in February and a 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) win just three weeks ago in Cincinnati, weren't technical gems of tactics and execution. If each woman plays at her best, Williams is the better player, hands down. But whenever Williams' form dipped or her intensity waned, Azarenka was right there to capitalize.
"You've got to fight," Azarenka said when asked about the mentality required to beat Williams. "You've got to run, you've got to grind and you've got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have."
Here are highlights from Azarenka's win in the Cincinnati final.
As many of her rivals know, it's one thing to beat Williams at a WTA-level tournament and quite another to beat her at a Slam. Her focus at the majors is on a completely different level to what she brings to the WTA's bread-and-butter tournaments.
"Different energy, different opportunities," Williams said, when asked to compare their upcoming clash in the final to the other matches on tour. "This is for a Grand Slam. I mean, she's trying to win yet another one; I'm trying to win one myself. It's just different timing."
The biggest question for Williams is how she'll deal with the pressure of going for her 17th major title and, in her own mind, redeeming her season. By now, you'd think a seasoned veteran wouldn't be dealing with nerves, but Williams has been surprisingly candid about how tense she still gets in matches. She tightened up while leading 6-0, 5-2 against Li, and despite her comments calling Sloane Stephens "the favorite" going into their fourth-round clash, you could see the relief on Williams' face when she advanced to the quarterfinals.
"Sometimes I like pressure, to be honest," Williams said. "Sometimes I don't. I'm not going to sit here and make up things and try to sound fabulous. Pressure sometimes is tough."
Williams said this summer that she doesn't find her season particularly impressive, a surprising statement considering she's recaptured the No. 1 ranking, collected a career-high nine titles and won her first French Open title since 2002. It's all about the majors for the 31-year-old, and this is her last chance this season.
Tactically, the Achilles heel in Azarenka's game over the last two months has been her serve. She's served 31 double faults in the tournament -- that's an average of more than five per match -- and she admits she's struggling with the rhythm on it. Given how well Williams returns, a bad serving day from Azarenka could turn this into a rout.
But where her serve has caused her problems throughout the summer, her net game has saved her. Giving Williams a target to pass can lead to disaster, but Azarenka's done well in deciding when to sneak into the net to put away a volley. She played a key volley in the third-set tiebreak of her Cincinnati win and said afterward that she knew she had to go out and take the match as opposed to waiting for Williams to give it to her.
"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 all about just playing some tennis now. "
Prediction: Serena Williams in straight sets.