It was almost deja vu in the worst way possible for Victoria Azarenka: once up 6-4, 5-1 on Serena Williams, her insurmountable lead was a point from evaporating. With a cadre of leads surrendered to Serena over the years squarely in the front of her mind, from match points in Madrid last year to serving for the championship at the 2012 U.S. Open, Vika calmly dug out of a 15-40 hole at 5-4 to win her second title in Indian Wells (also winning in 2012) and first Premier title since beating Williams in Cincinnati in 2013.
Serena’s loss, along with the highly insensitive and sexist comments of Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore, will garner most of the headlines, but this match was all about Azarenka. Though the advanced stats show she is every bit back to the dominant player of 2012 and 2013 before a flood of injuries struck, often the last part of rust to get knocked off is confidence closing matches. Azarenka steamrolled through the Brisbane field to start 2016, but once a high pressure match presented itself, she came up flat and ran out of answers in the Australian Open quarterfinals against eventual champion Angie Kerber.
On Sunday, she found a bigger gear with her serve and, other than a few double faults, it was not the Achilles heel that it had been in past matchups. She saved the first nine break points she faced, hanging on for dear life to the break she took in the opening game of the match, and then saved two more to sew up the trophy, becoming the first player ever to beat Williams in four finals.
After so much time waiting and wondering if Azarenka would truly rejoin the game’s elites, she’s back in the top 10 and up to third in the Race to Singapore standings, only a handful of points behind Williams for second (Kerber is first). Her improved ranking will help her going forward if nothing else because she’ll no longer have to deal with bad luck in draws and the potential of facing the world’s best players in the second or third round.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to take from this match in reaction to Serena’s performance. She played a rather impatient and sluggish match and paid for it in the end. Rather than take advantage of her superior movement (that and her legendary serve are what’s given her such an overwhelming edge in a rivalry that’s been competitive despite its one-sided nature) to craft points that would slowly tilt the field position in her favor, she attempted to blast the ball, a tactic that didn’t work because her footwork was again shaky in a big match.
She’ll be fine in the long-term, but it does mark the third straight tournament, and the fourth in five, in which a great effort from her opponent was enough to take her out (Bencic/Toronto, Vinci/U.S. Open, Kerber/Australian Open being the others). While Serena is still the best player on tour by far, the improvements made by Vika will make for a very compelling season going forward in Miami and on to the clay season.