Victoria Azarenka won the first point in her U.S. Open semifinal, but then she doubled, lost the next three points, and doubled again, bad start.
She got a game along the way to a first set rout, but her old pal and rival, Serena Williams, was not in a giving mood, and you would be reaching for the vodka if you were watching this in Minsk, Miss Azarenka’s hometown. Where sadly there are worse excuses to drink.
After this, you saw where the word “reset” comes from. Miss Williams took the first game promptly with two aces, but Miss Azarenka was getting into the match, holding with suddenly reliable serves and the touch — the shot where you combine pace and place to get the ball over the net and down the line or across the court into a corner where it cannot be reached.
The touch improved game by game, and in the fifth she had it down cold, as she broke the great champion with two zingers to the ad side corner. After that, Vika hit three first serves that Serena netted and then one second serve that she netted too.
It was a ball game now. Control — dictation, the pros call it — changed sides, as Miss Azarenka held her own through the eighth and then broke Miss Williams again in the ninth at 15-40 with a backhand to the baseline.
One set each, the time of nerves; would the momentum shift again? Children to consider — or to forget about for an hour, for their own good, the moms’ and the children’s — as in an earlier match, when Miss Williams faced a gracious and nimble Tsvetana Pironkova, who took her for three sets and said, “Her serves are bombs.”
Little Alexander, Miss Pironkova’s child, is two and a few months. Miss Azarenka’s, little Leo, is going on four. And little Alexis Olympia, Miss Williams’s, is three. They are wonderful kids and their mothers’ prides and joys, which makes their tennis — the consensus appears to be — more better than ever. The children make the tennis better and the tennis makes the mothers happier and therefore better moms. Nerves left on courts and all that, but I am not a “sports psychiatrist.”
Earlier, when Naomi Osaka met Jennifer Brady in the first semi, it was all muscle and sinew. The two young ladies were in such great form and playing with such unrestrained pleasure that it looked like a fencing duel or a pas de deux: a beautiful tennis match. They hit hard and clean and fast and long from the baselines, not trying to intimidate or overwhelm as much as keep each other in the point until a true shot missed truly. They looked perfectly open: like live allegories of this year’s USTA slogan, “be open,” they were what tennis was and is and should be.
Which is not to take anything away from the mighty misses A and W. Miss Azarenka, at 31, always has come up short when it really mattered against her friend and rival, six years her senior, best of her era, more wins than anyone else at this tournament, 23 Slams trophies. This year, in a battle of moms, the stars were with the younger one, and in a match as mental as the younger ladies’ had been physical, it was Vika who was mistress of her fate. She fought off all attempts by Serena to make up the early break, doubled to 30-30 in the ninth game, took a deep breath to win the next point on a big serve to the backhand.
She closed it out, and in a match like this there had to be a challenge when the ball hit the line. But hit the line it did, and it was over.
“When she’s playing against me, she just lifts her level to unseen levels,” she said of her. “She’s just the kind of person you kind of always root for.”
“Someone who is an amazing champion going for what she wants to do,” her said of she. “All admiration from my side.”
Tennis. Champions. Moms.