MASON, Ohio — No. 1 Serena Williams defeated No. 11 Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-1 to win her first Western & Southern Open title and 66th WTA title of her career. The win was Serena's second title in three weeks and she is now 5-0 in finals this season. With the U.S. Open just a week away, Williams solidified her position as the tournament favorite by playing her best tennis of the last three weeks in the final, highlighted by her big serve firing for 12 aces and a return game that allowed her to break Ivanovic's serve at will.
Three thoughts on Serena's WTA-leading fifth title:
Serena goes into the U.S. Open battle-tested
This summer was the first time since 2007 that Williams had played three consecutive weeks. She joked before the tournament that she wasn't used to playing this much in such a short span considering her early exits at the major tournaments this year. What has been impressive is not simply that she's won two of the three tournaments she played — she won the Bank of the West Classic two weeks ago — but that she fought well through a series of tough matches and came through.
We've seen Serena roll through the field to win titles, dropping bagel sets on her hapless opponents and overpowering everyone with her game. But over the last three weeks she has been tested and forced to overcome any doubts or lack of confidence to get the win. In Cincinnati, she won a tough 7-6 (7), 7-6(7) match against Sam Stosur in her opening round. In the semifinals, her serve was broken seven times but she kept grinding to beat Caroline Wozniacki 2-6, 6-2, 6-4. In the final she fell behind 1-3 in the first set and had to save three break points to keep from falling a double-break back. She broke Ivanovic at love and amped up her serve and return game to put pressure on Ivanovic's serve. Serving at 4-5, 15-40, the Serb blinked and double-faulted to give the set away. Serena rolled to the win from there.
Serena is peaking just in time
Even Williams admitted her win over Ivanovic was her best performance of the summer.
"I won Stanford but I definitely didn't play as well," Williams said. "Then Montréal, I got to the semis but didn't play as well as I did here. Then my first day of practice here something just clicked. I was playing better and I was serving better."
It all begins with Williams' serve. The shot hasn't been reliable for her throughout the summer — or this year for that matter — but it all came together this week. She was hitting the low 120s on the radar gun and mixing up her serves well. Against Ivanovic, she hit 12 aces as opposed to three double-faults. That loosened her up on return games and off the ground. She finished with 26 winners and 13 unforced errors.
Ivanovic has taken Williams to three sets in all three of their meetings this year, including two weeks ago in Stanford, and she said this was the best she had seen from her.
"Definitely at some point of the match [I] actually felt quite embarrassed walking from one side to the other for returns," Ivanovic said laughing. She failed to win a single point of Serena's first serve in the second set and was able to manage just 46 percent of her returns in play. By comparison, she got 86 percent of her returns in against Maria Sharapova in the semifinal.
"This is definitely a level that could take me to the [U.S. Open] title," Williams said. "I still have a lot of work to do, but I think my serve was doing a lot better. And not just in this match. I just think the whole week I've served pretty solid, hit more aces than I have been hitting. It's definitely a better level than I've played I think for all year, to be honest."
Ivanovic has earned her dark-horse tag
Not even an unexpected mid-season coaching change can derail Ivanovic, who was into her biggest final since the 2009 BNP Paribas Open. Her signature win (in so many ways) came in the semifinals against Maria Sharapova, where she nearly choked away a 6-2, 5-2 lead only to save two match points late in the third set to win 6-2, 5-7, 7-5. She didn't return to her hotel until nearly midnight Saturday and the turnaround for a 2pm final may have proved too quick. She'll be a worthy dark horse at the U.S. Open after securing a the No. 8 seed for the tournament with her Cincinnati run.