New York: Victoria Azarenka had been flattened by Serena Williams in the first set of their US Open semi-final. There’s no other word to describe it. Azarenka couldn’t hold serve, couldn’t dent Williams’ formidable serve, and had little chance against Williams’ walloped ground strokes.
Yet, when the circumstances were darkest, Azarenka found the light within herself to believe she could push back against the woman she had never before beaten in a major tournament.
“I knew it’s never over until I have another chance,” Azarenka said. Improbably enough, she was right.
Given one chance, the Belarus native took two sets and the match, ending Williams’ quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. Azarenka crouched on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York and covered her face with her hands after a replay showed she had hit an ace to clinch 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory and advance to Saturday’s final against Naomi Osaka, joy and incredulity flooding through her.
“I dug myself in a big hole — I mean, she dug me in a big hole in the first set,” said Azarenka, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and lost to Williams in the US Open finals in those same years. “I had to climb my way out of there one by one and I’m very happy that I’m able to turn around because it wasn’t easy for sure.”
Williams injured her left foot in the second game of the third set as she chased a deep backhander by Azarenka. She needed a medical timeout and had her already heavily taped ankle taped again. She later said she had stretched her Achilles but didn’t blame that for her defeat. “I don’t think it had anything to do” with the loss, she said. “I think Victoria played well. It didn’t affect my play ultimately at all, just for that one point.”
Williams lost that game and stayed in the set, but Azarenka was simply too powerful and determined and newly able to read Williams’ serve. “She started getting balls that she normally doesn’t get back, she got back,” Williams said of Azarenka’s second-set rebirth, which began with Azarenka going up a break for a 3-2 lead. “She started hitting shots that she normally doesn’t make, she made those. She just really stepped her level up.”
Williams is still chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles; since her return to competition in 2018 after giving birth to her daughter, Williams has twice reached the finals at Wimbledon and twice reached the US Open final but has lost on all four occasions. This year, she couldn’t even get that far, though she said she plans to play in the French Open, which was rescheduled to begin later this month.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” said Williams, who will be 39 in a few weeks. “At the same time, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”
That wasn’t enough against the resurgent Azarenka, who was unseeded and is still getting her career back on track after a bitter custody battle over her young son Leo prevented her from travelling and playing a full schedule.
“I hope it just, hopefully inspires women to go after their dreams,” Azarenka said of her success. “Being a parent is to me the most important thing, but I’m a tennis player on the court, a fighter on the court, I want to go after my dreams, my personal dreams, inspire my child and I hope that women around the world know that they can do anything because being a parent is the toughest thing and once you can balance that you can do anything.”
Osaka, a 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 winner over former UCLA standout Jennifer Brady in the brilliantly played first semi-final, wore a Kobe Bryant Black Mamba jersey while she sat in the stadium and watched the match between Azarenka and Williams suddenly turn into a battle. Osaka, the 2018 US Open champion, was hesitant to say much about her plans against Azarenka, but her intentions are clear. “No one remembers anyone but the winner,” she said.
Brady, a first-time Grand Slam finalist at 25, gave Osaka a strong challenge in a high-quality match before Osaka’s experience won out. The opening set was the first set Brady had lost during her US Open run. “I felt like I went out there and I believed I could win the match,” Brady said. “Obviously I didn’t, but I’m pretty happy with myself, with my effort and my mentality these past couple weeks.”