It is not a semifinal that we would have imagined a month or two ago, but both Williams and Azarenka, who contested the final here in both 2012 and 2013, have risen through their sections of the draw to set up this highly anticipated semifinal encounter. Either Jennifer Brady and Naomi Osaka await in Saturday’s final.
Head to Head: Williams in control
Williams is in control of the head to head between herself and Azarenka, with the third seed and six-time US Open champion winning 18 of their previous 22 meetings. Even more dominant is the American’s head-to-head over the Belarusian at Grand Slam tournaments; the world number eight has won all of their ten meetings across the four major tournaments.
Their last slam meetings came at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2015, both of which Williams won from a set down, whilst the American won their last overall meeting in Indian Wells last year. Williams also won both their finals in New York in three sets. However, even though the head-to-head is certainly not in her favor, Azarenka has had some success in this match-up.
All of the two-time Australian Open champions wins over the American have come in finals, showing that she has the capability to defeat Williams on a big stage. Several of their meetings have gone the distance, showing that Azarenka does have the ability to trouble the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion like few others have been able to.
Of the two it is arguably Azarenka who is in better form. The Belorussian has dropped just one set on her way to the last four, to Karolina Muchova in the fourth round, and is on a ten match win streak, having won the Western & Southern Open title prior to the tournaments. Williams has been pushed to three sets in her past three matches, and has certainly had the tougher time in reaching this stage; the Belarusian may be less fatigued.
Azarenka’s return to somewhere near her best form has been in part due to her aggression when returning. When she was the world number one seven years ago the Belarusian dominated with her return and, after losing some potency on it, has been back relentlessly attacking her opponent’s serve at all opportunities. This was no more evident than in her last eight match against Elise Mertens, where she broke at every opportunity.
The world number 27 will look to attack Williams on serve, particularly on second serve, and will look to dictate after that, particularly on her backhand side. However, it is likely that Williams will employ a similar tactic. The Belarusian can have trouble with serving and the American will likely be able to take control of the rallies if that is the case.
Though she had to rally from a set and a break down to win, one positive sign for Williams in her quarterfinal win over Tsvetana Pironkova was her serve. The American hit 20 aces- the most she has hit in a single match in over eight years. She will need a similar serving performance against someone returning as well as Azarenka, though can often find a big serve if she needs to.
This will certainly be a contest of first strike tennis with several rallies likely to be over quickly, though both have been moving incredibly well on court this fortnight and defence will be key for both. Both women will likely have several rallies where they are on the back foot, and will likely look to work their way into the rally and take control of it. This may be more key for Azarenka, who is likely to find herself on the defensive a little more frequently.
What’s also important to recognise is that there is a great deal at stake for both Williams and Azarenka. After four Grand Slam final defeats in a row Williams is still hunting for a 24th Grand Slam title, whilst Azarenka is in a Grand Slam singles final for the first time in seven years. This tournament and match signals a golden opportunity for both, and it will be intriguing to see if there are any signs of pressure evident for either of them.
Williams and Azarenka have played some classic encounters over the years, including both their US Open finals, and this could certainly be another high-quality affair. Williams has battled hard to reach the last four and looks just as motivated as ever, whilst Azarenka is back playing the type of tennis that saw her become the best player in the world in 2012.
Azarenka is certainly the form player coming in and has a huge opportunity to reach a fifth Grand Slam singles final, but it is hard to look past how Williams has controlled most of their previous meetings. It would not be a surprise if the Belarusian prevailed, but there is a sense that the American will edge this to reach a third straight US Open final.
Prediction: Serena Williams in three sets