The U.S. Open just got a whole lot more interesting.
On Sunday afternoon, in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, the underdog Victoria Azarenka stopped Serena Williams' 14-match winning streak by beating her 2-6, 6-2, 7-6(6) in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
It was a topsy-turvy affair that started out error-strewn from Azarenka in the first set, lethargic from Williams in the second set, but really hit it's stride in the electric third set, as Azarenka's return and depth and Serena's forehand and grit were on full display.
And the good news for tennis fans? Both women can play better. Much better.
Though Williams leads the head-to-head against Azarenka 12-3, Azarenka has won both of their battles on hard courts this year and came within two points of taking out Williams in the U.S. Open final last year.
It looks like women's tennis officially has the rivalry it's been looking for in recent years.
Sunday's loss was a disappointing one for Williams, who was previously 8-1 in WTA finals this year, with her lone loss coming to Azarenka in Doha. She was trying to win the Western & Southern Open for the first time in her career, and according to Joe Kay of the Associated Press, she admitted earlier in the week that this tournament was on her "bucket list."
However, she did note that it took just a bit of the pressure off heading into the U.S. Open next week.
2013 has definitely belonged to Williams. The American is No. 1 in the rankings by a mile and has gone 60-4 with eight titles and 10 finals this year. Unfortunately for her, two of her four losses have come at Grand Slams. In New York, nothing less than the title will do.
Azarenka, meanwhile, started out the year in style, defending her title at the Australian Open to remain No. 1 and backing that up by taking out Williams in the Doha final.
But since then, she has been battling injuries. An ankle injury caused her to miss tournaments during the spring, and then, just when she seemed to find her form again, a knee injury in her first-round match at Wimbledon derailed her again.
She didn't come back onto tour until Carlsbad last month, and her comeback was stalled when she withdrew from from the Rogers Cup at the last minute with a back injury. Fans certainly had a right to be skeptical whether she would be a factor for the remainder of the season.
With Azarenka questionable, Maria Sharapova also struggling with injuries, and Williams going through a tear in Bastad and Toronto this summer—not dropping a set along the way—it looked like the U.S. Open would be one-way traffic.
But throughout her time in Cincinnati, Azarenka did what she does best: fight. She played herself into form match by match and showed the competitive fire that got her to No. 1 in the world. The Cincinnati trophy was her third of the year, and it put her right back into contention for the title in Flushing.
It certainly didn't hurt that she showed a lot of personality along the way, even impressing the press corps, who she hasn't always shone in front of.
Make no mistake about it, Serena Williams is the favorite for the U.S. Open. She plays her best tennis at the biggest events and will be much fresher in New York—she was obviously fatigued in the Western & Southern Open final after playing 10 matches in 15 days.
But Azarenka is nipping at her heels. She's one of the few players who doesn't seem to be intimidated by Williams, and she never stops competing in their matches. Her return (somewhat) neutralizes the Serena serve, and she can hit winners from anywhere on the court.
Azarenka goes into their matches against Williams with confidence and a plan, and it is really paying off. Now she just needs an upset at a Grand Slam.
Wimbledon proved that anything can happen in women's tennis, and the field in New York will be deep with players gunning to take down Williams and Azarenka. But they are certainly the top two favorites.
If seeds hold to form and they both make the U.S. Open final in three weeks, it will be must-see TV.
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