Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can Anyone Stop Serena?

Victoria Azarenka drew the short straw and will have to face Serena Williams in the third round tomorrow on Ashe. Does she have a chance?

13 Grand Slams and 14 straight wins add up to a really difficult assignment for No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka tomorrow. Azarenka is at a career-high ranking, and fresh off her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, but those are pretty small potatoes when you consider what she'll be up against tomorrow. 

And yet, if there is anybody in the draw capable of putting a scare into Serena, the 22-year-old Belarusian might be the woman for the job. Azarenka has defeated Serena before (it's a start), and she did it in Miami, a place where Serena had won five of the previous six titles. There's more to the story (isn't there always with Serena?): Williams played the match with her left thigh heavily strapped and later said "It was definitely tough...I'm just glad I made it this far."

Maybe Azarenka was fortunate, but she scored the win nonetheless.

And that wasn't the only time she rattled Serena's cage.

Azarenka has put a scare into Serena twice in Australia too. In 2009 she took an early lead against Williams only to be forced to retire due to dizziness in the second set. Then, there was the memorable and infamous "calm storm" episode, in which Serena was getting absolutely blitzed by Azarenka in the '10 Australian Open, then engineered a Houdini impersonation to win in three sets. 

That might have been the turning point in the rivalry that never was. Azarenka had been making headway against Williams until that point, but following that match one is left with the feeling that it's going to be a long time —maybe an eternity—until Azarenka can stand across the net from Serena and expect to win. 

Sure, Azarenka's got the game to put Serena on the run, and even enough punch to hit through her, but in the end, Serena's true advantage has always been about her Invincible aura more than her vast array of shots or awe inspiring power. When she willed herself to victory against Azarenka in Australia (what was remarkable about the match is that Azarenka didn't choke it away, she was just ambushed by a woman possessed) it was an undeniable symbol of a return to order between the two. 

If Azarenka's window against Serena was open once, it appears to have been closed in January of 2010. It's painted shut now, and Azarenka is going to need to play some seriously courageous tennis to even crack it open again tomorrow, let alone win. 

If their last meeting is any indication, tomorrow's tilt could be a one-sided affair. Williams won 93% of her first serve points in a breezy straight-sets win over the Belarusian en route to the Toronto title in August. 

This week, Serena seems even stronger than she was she won titles in Stanford and Toronto back-to-back in August. She's looked utterly explosive in the first two rounds, covering the court with a quickness not seen for several years, while surrendering a mere three games in her first two matches. 

Azarenka is still a player on the rise, and she's overcome a lot of fitness-related issues to emerge a stronger more mentally composed player. But does she have enough to push Serena, a player who is clearly hungry for Grand Slam glory and all the trappings that come with it? 

I sincerely doubt it. 

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