NEW YORK -- Three thoughts after Victoria Azarenka's 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Maria Sharapova. Top-seeded Azarenka will play No. 4 Serena Williams for the U.S. Open women's title on Saturday night at 7 p.m. EST.
Many have surmised -- including our own Courtney Nguyen -- that this is the best rivalry in women's tennis. It's got edge, for sure, and Azarenka is clearly in Sharapova's head on hardcourts. She has five consecutive wins on the surface against Sharapova and has now beaten her at the U.S. Open and the finals of the Australian Open. She leads the rivalry 6-4 and has won three of the last four matches. "The score line was a lot tougher this time, obviously, but the result wasn't what I wanted," Sharapova said.
Though Sharapova will move up to No. 2 in the world when the next rankings are released on Monday, she talked afterward about this being a missed opportunity. She finished with 42 unforced errors, 10 double faults and failed to take advantage of the early break in the second set when Azarenka looked down and out. You rarely know what Sharapova is thinking on the court but you could see this opponent is different. There were screams, fist pumps and a couple of ball-slams after a double fault. No doubt she wanted to get to the final of a major but Azarenka occupies at least a small part of her head. "We both have many years ahead of us," Sharapova said. "I'm sure we will be facing against each other many more times in Grand Slams and other tournaments. You know, she has the better record right now against me. Hopefully when I'm done I can change that around."
Azarenka afterward said she relishes the pressure of playing against Sharapova. "I really do because that's what I feel like we play for, we live for, to play on these big stages against such champions," she said. "That feeling of winning a great battle is just priceless."
Azarenka could have submitted as things headed south early in the second set but grinded out an impressive victory over a rival she relishes beating. She also overcame one of the more remarkable stats: Sharapova had been 104-1 since the start 2010 when winning the first set of a match, including 78 wins in a row since August 2010. She's now 104-2 thanks to Azarenka's grit.
It was an ugly start for Azarenka. She double-faulted in her first service game and generated nothing off her serve. By the end of the opening set, she had a single winner compared to 10 from her opponent, Sharapova started the second set with a break, but that's when Azarenka really raised the level of her play. She broke Sharapova in the fourth game of the second set and had a huge hold to go up 4-2. She started dictating points with her flat, hard groundstrokes and cruised in the second set.
It was interesting to watch what happened before the final set. Sharapova headed for the locker room for a heat break (when the air temperature exceeds 82.4 degrees, a 10-minute break is allowed between the second and third set if either player requests the break), but after five or so minutes passed, Azarenka came out to warm up by herself. She was pumping her legs and getting fed balls from the ball kids while Sharapova was in the locker room.
It foreshadowed what was to come. The final set was 74 minutes, much of it taxing tennis, but you got the sense early that Azarenka would survive the long haul. While Sharapova didn't exactly wilt in the conditions, Azarenka's service games were far more comfortable. She had two easy hold games to take 4-3 and 5-4 leads -- and she was able to save energy while Sharapova worked hard in the sweat. "I didn't do much on her service games," Sharapova said. "She was winning them pretty easy and on mine they were quite long and [I was] just making too many errors, not putting any pressure on her." Finally, after 2 hours and 42 minutes and on her second match point, Sharapova sailed a forehand long to end it. Azarenka has not a lost a three-set match in 2012. She's a cool 12-0.
First, the good news: This will be Azarenka's first U.S. Open final and her second Grand Slam final of the year. Along with starting the year on a 26-match win streak, the best start to a season since Martina Hingis in 1997, Azarenka has won four tournaments in 2012 (Sydney, Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells) and was runner-up at Stuttgart and Madrid. She has held the No. 1 ranking for 28 weeks and owns best win loss percentage on hard courts this year (32-2, .941).
But she is 1-9 lifetime against Serena, including losing the last seven meetings. The two did play a competitive second set in the Wimbledon semifinals this year -- Williams won 7-6 in a tiebreak. Serena was in unbeatable serving form in that match, firing a record 24 aces. If Azarenka wants to give herself any shot, she obviously must return well. Asked after her win over Sharapova if she would watch any of her previous matches against Serena, she laughed. "I don't want to be depressed," she said. "I mean, there's not really something that you can look at. "