Serena Williams swept into her second straight US Open final with a crushing 6-1, 6-2 victory Friday over Italy’s Sara Errani in just 1 hour and 4 minutes.
But it took Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova 2 hours and 42 minutes to settle their differences in a high-velocity, high-volume match that eventually went to Azarenka, the Belarussian world No. 1, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
If anyone had thought to sell ear muffs outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, they would have done a roaring trade.
Azarenka and Sharapova are the game’s two biggest shriekers and, for some, they produce such a high-pitched cacophony of sound when playing each other that the whole experience becomes unbearable.
A pity, because this was a compelling duel, laced with some amazing rallies and sudden changes of fortune. It was a match Azarenka deserved to win, but Sharapova could have won — and, on her record of not having lost a three-set match since last year’s US Open (12 in all) would have been expected to win.
The Russian, who completed the rare feat of winning all four Slams when she won the French Open in June, started like an express train, breaking early and leading 4-1. But the train kept getting shunted into sidings by double faults – a problem that started to trouble her even as she served out for the first set. In the end there were 10 of them.
Breaking in the first game of the third, it seemed that Sharapova was on her way to avenging two bad straight-set defeats at the hands of Azarenka at the Australian Open and Indian Wells this year – matches that were played on hard courts, unlike the clay of Stuttgart, where Maria had won handily, 6-1, 6-4 in the spring.
But Azarenka slowly started relaxing and moving better, and when the rhythm returned to her ground strokes, the crowd was treated to some truly incredible baseline rallies. It is not often that two women have hit a tennis ball harder or more cleanly than this, and Sharapova often came out of them with the winner she was striving for — in total, she hit 44 of them to Vika’s 19.
But Azarenka forced her way back into the match, breaking Sharapova three times in Maria’s next four service games and hanging tough in the third set as Sharapova’s return game went off the boil.
"A lot of swings in the match today," Sharapova said afterward. "She picked up her game. In the third, I think it had a lot to do with the returns. I didn’t do much on her service games. She was winning them pretty easy and I was not putting any pressure on her."
Sharapova said that, over the past few years after she returned from shoulder surgery, she has been better at putting wins and losses into perspective.
"If you are level headed about difficult defeats then they don’t seem so difficult," she said. "And after I won the French Open, of course I was so happy but I had this really calm feeling, like a settlement in my career. It wasn’t like I wanted to go out and party and tell the whole world I had won. It was just this feeling within me that I had achieved something I had worked for. And the losses – they’re difficult, but they motivate me to go back on court and practice."
Whether Azarenka will be reflecting on a win or a loss on Saturday evening remains to be seen, but she will have to pull out something special to stop Serena.
Errani, of course, does not have the fire power to push an athlete as powerful and as swift as Serena into awkward positions, and the younger Williams was virtually given the freedom of the court to hit winners at will. An impressive 38 of them flew off her racket. Errani managed just six.
"When she plays like this she is the best player ever, I think," said the Italian. Asked what chances Azarenka had in the final, she replied, "Azarenka is a strong player, for sure, but Serena should win. She is at a different level."
Azarenka was obviously not allowing herself to think that way.
"When I go to play against her I don’t think I play against Serena," she said. "I just try to go the same way and focus on myself. But you definitely know its’ going to be a big adversity against you. You have to be prepared to dig deep and accept the challenge. With Serena it’s not about long rallies. It’s all about who grabs the first opportunity, who is more brave."
”Obviously, Victoria wants to win, too,” Williams told the crowd. ”But I’m American, guys. Last one standing. Go USA!”
A win would be just the latest in an amazing run by the resurgent Williams — she also took titles at Wimbledon and the London Olympics.
”It’s really awesome,” she said in an on-court interview. ”That is what I wanted, and what I dreamed of, all year.”