By Richard Pagliaro, Tennis.com
All the world's a stage, and the U.S. Open finalists are a pair of scene stealers. Victoria Azarenka upstaged Maria Sharapova and celebrated her semifinal comeback with a victory dance, while committed karaoke singer Serena Williams has hit some of her highest notes in reaching her sixth U.S. Open final. Vika squares off against Serena on the game's largest Grand Slam stage in a match that pits the world No. 1 against the world's most dangerous player, with both women playing for their second major title of the season.
Australian Open champion Azarenka's impressive hard-court credentials—she owns a 32-2 record on the surface this year, winning four of the six events she's played—combined with her status as top seed and 12-0 record in three-setters this season has even Serena spinning her as the favorite.
"I don't have anything to lose. I feel like I'm going up against the most consistent and the best player this year, being Victoria Azarenka," Serena said after her semifinal drubbing of Sara Errani on Friday. "I feel like I don't have anything to lose, and it will be a good challenge for me."
The reality is that Serena has been an overwhelming obstacle for Azarenka, winning nine of their 10 meetings and 10 consecutive sets. A standard baseline exchange can serve as a dialogue between two players, but when Serena is slamming her domineering serve and ripping menacing returns off both wings, she reduces the rally to a monologue where she has that last word. Azarenka, who dispenses her stinging shots amplified by a distinctive shriek, knows she must play with bold ambition to make meaningful noise in the final.
"I've got to do something different, to be honest, because the other times didn't really work for me," Azarenka said after subduing Roland Garros champion Maria Sharapova in the semis, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. "So I definitely have to try to make sure that I'm the one who kind of dictates the play and try to control the match as much as possible."
Taking control from Serena in a major final can be as challenging as snatching the world from Atlas' shoulders. But it has been done, just last year in New York. Ninth-seeded Samantha Stosur shocked a weary Serena, 6-2, 6-3, a defeat has infused Williams with the intensity to regain the U.S. Open title she last won four years ago. A ruthless Serena has rampaged through the field, permitting just 19 games in six tournament victories.
"When she plays like this, I think she's the best player in the world," Errani said of Williams after absorbing a semifinal thrashing. "Azarenka is also a strong player. I think Serena is another level."
The top-seeded Azarenka has played with poise and grit in fighting off defending champion Stosur in the quarterfinals before stopping Sharapova in the semis. Azarenka has had a few moments against Serena in the past: The Belarusian swept Williams in the 2009 Miami final and held leads in both their 2009 and 2010 Australian Open matches before Serena rallied. Azarenka is an exceptionally clean ball striker whose two-handed backhand and return game are two of the most lethal weapons in tennis—she has registered a tournament-best 36 breaks. But Williams crushed Azarenka, 6-1, 6-2, in the Olympic semifinals just weeks after she swept her at Wimbledon, and has owned this rivalry because she can take charge from the first swing of her serve and return, forcing the aggressive-baseliner into defensive positions.
Given their lopsided head-to-head history (Serena leads the series, 9-1) and the fact Williams' last two hard-court losses came against grinding counter punchers—Caroline Wozniacki beat her in Miami, 6-4, 6-4, Angelique Kerber conquered her by the same score in Cincinnati last month—conventional wisdom suggests that Azarenka should try to extend Serena in longer baseline exchanges. The problem with that tactic is because Serena covers the court quicker and is more dangerous striking on the run, Azarenka opens herself up to sharp-angled replied to her traditional cross-court strokes.
To truly test the top server in women's tennis history, Azarenka must hold serve herself, and that means taking some chances with aggressive first and second serves. A fast start is essential, as Azarenka has not taken a set from Williams in more than two years. Azarenka will need to try to tie up Williams with some deep drives down the middle, use her best shot—the two-handed backhand—to try corner the American, and set up her down-the-line backhand and step into the court when she can to finish points moving forward.
Azarenka is certainly capable of challenging Williams, but ultimately this match is in Serena's hands. She is facing a tremendous returner, but Williams has dominated on serve, slamming a tournament-best 50 aces and winning 83 percent of her first serves. Serena has won 25 of her last 26 matches, is fitter and fresher than she was in the 2011 final, has had a smoother path to the final, and has been moving fluidly and striking convincingly. The three-time U.S. Open champion has created both magic and mayhem in New York and will be primed to pump up the volume on her shots and regain the title.
The Pick: Serena Williams in two sets.