With the marquee second-round night match of Serena Williams verses Victoria Azarenka looming, the BNP Paribas Open was abuzz all day. Their performance was worthy of the top billing. In terms of conditions, the evening was chilly and the wind remained a wildcard.
Friday, March 8th, the BNP Paribas Open celebrated International Women’s Day with the “HeForShe” movement. This is an initiative that “seeks to engage men and boys as advocates for gender equality”. It is fitting that these two strong women took the court, both having publicly demonstrated personal and professional strength by being vulnerable and real. Both mothers are returning to the WTA tour where historically the odds were not favorable. They have entered new territory, balancing motherhood with a demanding WTA schedule. Both women have put their kids first and are normalizing motherhood as a part of professional tennis.
I read the following post for International Women’s Day: “The women I admire are not the ones where everything has gone their way. It is the ones where things have gone wrong in their lives, sometimes horribly wrong, and they handled it, they just did.” This sentiment resonates for these two former BNP Paribas Open champions, Grand Slam champions and world No.1s.
The fans who purchased these early round tickets won the tennis lottery. The match was a flashback to their historical late-round battles. Williams was very focused, aggressive and going for shots from the start and Azarenka was fearless and relished this challenge. You could hear fans and commentators saying that Azarenka was back and that perhaps this was the moment she needed. The Belarusian has partnered again with coach Wim Fissette.
The past few days players have spoken about playing more conservative tennis because of the wind conditions. Both Williams and Azarenka threw caution to the wind, as only aggression would produce a win tonight. Blistering shots with laser-like precision thrilled the crowd.
Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 7-5 6-3
1st set — Williams 7-5
In the first set, Azarenka gave Williams a few too many open doors with double faults. Most notable was the break to 3-3 with three doubles. Long, intense baseline rallies were “normal”. The pressure to hold serve was immense. By the numbers, Williams edged out Azarenka in return points and break points won and saved.
After establishing holds, the players fought for breaks of serve for the next four games, landing squarely at 3-3. Azarenka drew the first blood, capturing a 14-point service game. Williams pressed and held for 4-3 and followed up with a break. The score was now 5-3 and surely the tenth seed would close out the set. But the Belarusian stood her ground, winning the next two games to 5-5. The crowd burst out with “Come on, Serena”. As the American struggled to close, her face was telling us “What do I have to do?”
Azarenka pressed Williams hard in game eleven, forcing a 16-point exchange. It was noted that Williams seemed to lose power in her serve late in the first set. In this moment, she closed with an ace to 6-5. While Azarenka did not drop her level, Williams found enough margin to break her next service game. She closed with a blistering return at one hour and 12 minutes. Williams celebrated and released with a full body fist-pump. The two shared an unusual total of nine double faults in set 1, beautiful groundstrokes and excellent court coverage.
2nd set — Willams 6-3
Commentator Mary Carillo made the following observation: “At the start of the second set, there are already 11 rallies over 9 shots long.”
After losing a tight first set, a younger Azarenka might not have held her composure. Tonight, that Azarenka was not in attendance. She pressed again and came up with another first break. Williams immediately broke back and held. The screaming returns and well-placed serves continued. Azarenka took risks coming to net and seemed a bit eager to end points which found the net a few too many times. At 3-3, fans gasped at a 17-shot rally. Azarenka was successfully going for shots early. But 3-3 was her last stand. Williams took the next three service games, not without a fight, though. In the end of the match, Azarenka forced Williams to a 14-point game, 6-3 Williams.
At two hours and seven minutes, the battle ended with a warm, lingering net embrace.
After the victory, Williams remarked that it is awesome being a woman and mom celebrating International Women’s Day. She also said that she has a ton of improvement to do playing a champion like Victoria, and is excited and motivated to do it.
Commenting on her encounters with Williams, Azarenka noted that “on the court it’s war, when the match is over it’s love and respect”. The Belarusian added that “there are a lot of friendships on the tour, but perhaps they are not visible”.
The 29-year-old assessed the high number of service breaks being the result of continuous pressure they put on each other during the entire match. When she was asked whether Serena was playing differently than before, her reply was “perhaps she is a little more aggressive. Not many weaknesses”.
Azarenka heads to Miami next, where she is also a former champion. She appears poised to build momentum on this very solid performance.
Williams also shared her thoughts about the match and the friendship, stating: “She’s a very good friend. I would say we’re pretty close. We’re both moms, and we know how hard it is and how hard it’s been for us to come back, you know, and starting literally from scratch and fighting our way back. It’s been an arduous road, and I think we both really appreciate both of our efforts to do the best that we can do.”
Serena advances to face another tough opponent who defeated her in the 2016 French Open, Garbine Muguruza. And note, this year at the BNP Paribas Open, Serena and her sister Venus are on opposite halves of the draw.