Serena Williams is two wins away from holding all four grand slam titles – however much she hates thinking about the prospect of repeating her special achievement of 12 years ago – and, with chilling inevitability, it was her friend Victoria Azarenka who served as a stepping stone, albeit a noble one in defeat.
The 33-year-old American, who owns the US, the Australian and the French titles, did it the hard way against an opponent for whom she has respect but no mercy. She won 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 – her 17th victory over the Belarusian in 20 matches – under skies as gloomy as her prospects were until after an hour of the most intense struggle had passed on Centre Court, but the title looks hers to lose.
Every time she has reached the quarter-final since failing to do so in Melbourne two years ago, she has gone on to win the big prize – at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows in 2013, again in New York last year, followed by Melbourne and Paris again this year. That screams determination.
If Williams does win her sixth Wimbledon title and defends her home championship in September, she will be the first player to do the calendar slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. That would move her level with the German on 22 majors for the Open era record, with surely a year at least in which to add to her collection, time enough probably to pass Margaret Court’s all-time tally of 24.
All of that is very much for the future. Williams has to beat Maria Sharapova in the semi-final to reach the final on Saturday and although she holds a 17-2 advantage over the Russian, she takes nothing for granted.
“Maria’s been playing really well,” Williams said. “It’s always good to see her doing well.” Sure it is.
More believable were her quick reflections on the quarter-final: “It was really fun out there. I found myself smiling at one point, and Vika smiling too. It’s been an up-and-down tournament. Somehow I’m still alive.”
She went on to back Caroline Wozniacki’s calls for the women’s game to be given equal treatment on the show courts. “We’re still fighting on that,” Williams said. “We’ve made some progress but hopefully we’ll keep making more progress. I don’t think it’s limited to Wimbledon. We have this problem at a lot of different tournaments.”
Azarenka was also keen to talk about sexism, but reserved her criticism for the Centre Court crowd’s audible laughter during the match. “It’s so annoying because guys grunt,” said Azarenka. “I was practising next to [Rafa] Nadal, and he grunts louder than me, and nobody notices that. Why?
“Both women on the court were trying their hardest and giving everything, and they make noises. Is that a problem for tennis? It happens in every sport.
“So I think maybe it’s time to just put it aside and not talk about it all the time because this is not what is important when there are two players on the Centre Court.
“We’ve got to look a little bit past that and see: ‘Oh, my God, Serena played 24 aces.’ Look at the good stuff, stop bringing this ridiculous stuff.”
And the level here was extraordinarily high for the two hours and three minutes the match lasted although there was an inevitability about the result once they entered the concluding stages.
It said much about their relationship that Sascha Bajin, Williams’s hitting partner and confidant for eight years, could defect to join Azarenka and the move not generate a whit of unpleasantness. On court it was all business between two rivals who are also good friends.
Azarenka, who had not dropped a set in these championships, also knew she has never won against Williams on grass. So something had to give and two double-faults in the first game of the match gave the American the earliest possible opportunity to break. She battled through deuce twice to hold. And they scrapped from there pretty much to the final bell.
At 5.10pm, Serena faced that novel experience: dropping a set to Azarenka on a surface she has come to dominate like no other player of her era. She was two break points down at 2-5, so she found a couple of big serves, a thrashing backhand down the line and got to deuce. Despite a double-fault, she got there. Even when her game is malfunctioning, she is still too good for everyone else.
At 5.15pm Azarenka had set point and with a final swish of her backhand, she did it. The improbable had become a reality and now all sorts of possibilities opened up. Would breaking that spell liberate her or inspire the feared backlash across the net?
Retaliation started with three Serena aces and a hold to love. However, after exactly an hour and four games into the second set, there was nothing between them and while Azarenka had that first-set cushion to comfort her, Williams used the deficit as inspiration.
Her shouts grew louder, her returns hit the turf that bit harder but not all her bombs were hitting the mark and that gave Azarenka heart. She knew if she could hold her discipline she had a chance of hanging on. Williams needed an eighth ace to fight through deuce for a slender lead midway through the set. They had entered a mutual destruction pact, it seemed, every stroke loaded and the outcome uncertain in every point.
Fault lines began to appear in Azarenka’s game as Williams applied unrelenting pressure on her serve. She had to save three break points in the third game but could not save the two she handed up in the fifth, and Williams had the glimmer of a chance she needed.
From here she has won so many times before – but she found herself mired again in a struggle of her own making, surrendering two break points before holding for 5-2. When Azarenka failed to hold serve, a last, weakened backhand from behind the baseline billowing the net, the balance was firmly with Williams.
Azarenka pulled off the occasional stunning winner down the flanks, where Williams is always most vulnerable. She saved for deuce with a big second serve and deuce in the fourth game, and held when her opponent hit long. In the seventh game, Williams hit three aces inside a minute to pass 50 for the tournament. It was knockout tennis. Azarenka hit her seventh double fault and fourth ace to stay in the match.
Azarenka somehow managed a smile as Williams’s eighth ace eluded her swing, but was not thrilled to miss the next one. Williams then saw the comical side of daft mishit to give up break point – and aced again. On match point, Azarenka hit wide. The crowd stood in universal acclamation and the combatants hugged at the net. It was as much a memorable occasion as it was a contest.
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