Indian Wells, California: Friends. Moms. Rivals. Champions. You don’t get tennis matchups much more special than Friday night’s Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka tilt at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. And you definitely never get them in the second round.
When the final serve found its home, it was Serena Williams with a breath-taking 7-5, 6-3 win over Azarenka in a match fit for a final but relegated to the second round due to Azarenka being outside the top 32 and an unlucky draw.
There was no feeling-out process in this one. No body blows. Both players exchanged haymakers from the start. High-level tennis with equal parts skill and flair. The remarkable first set lasted one hour and 12 minutes and was some of the best tennis played on tour this year. Long rallies. Long games. Neither player giving an inch. Six of the first seven games went to deuce and the set included seven breaks of serve.
At one point in that first set, Williams just stopped and stared at Azarenka with a blank look that simply said: “C’mon now.”
Williams said it’s kind of tricky when you’re in the middle of a match like that, because you want to enjoy and recognize the high level, but there’s really no opportunity to.
“I think that it’s — you can’t really enjoy it, because then you’ll lose focus,” Williams said. “So it’s like you’ve got to kind of stay in the moment, you know. And it’s important to — like, sometimes you realize, Oh, my God, this is going to be a classic. But you can’t let your mind go there, because you wouldn’t want to watch it in the future.”
Williams, who hadn’t played since the Australian Open in January, showed very little rust with the exception of perhaps her serving accuracy. Though the windy conditions may have played a role.
Azarenka said she felt like, despite the loss, it was some of the best tennis she’s played in recent years, certainly better than her first-round exit in Australia. She said Serena has a tendency to bring out the best in her.
“I thought that today was a good match. Definitely a lot of high quality,” Azarenka said. “I don’t feel there was really a loser in this match. You know, she really won. She deserved to win. She played better on those important moments. I felt that every game was ad, deuce, ad, deuce. It was all about who was going to take that chance, and she took them a little better today.”
Serena appeared to have the first set finally in command up 5-3 and 30-0 on her serve, but Azarenka went into beast mode. She won the next eight points, breaking Serena and holding her serve at love to make it 5-5. That set up the 11th game, which decided the set and probably the match.
Serena held off a remarkable four break-point chances by Azarenka, and despite not having served well all set, hovering at 50 percent of her first serves in, Serena eventually belted three consecutive unreturnable serves to go up 6-5. She then broke Azarenka to take the set 7-5, and when her backhand winner landed, she unleashed a loud scream and a multiple-thrusting fist pump to signify how much the win meant. Serena was broken three times in the set, but broke Azarenka four.
In the second set, Williams started to find the going a little easier, connecting on more of her first serves and getting some easier points. But again Azarenka wouldn’t fold, playing the best tennis she’s played since returning to the tour after having her baby.
Williams’ relentless pressure from the baseline finally caused Azarenka to crack as an unforced error finished off a break of serve to put Williams up 5-3. She then served out the match shouting “Come on!” with every winner and the crowd — which included Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott — urging her on.
When she finally ended the classic match with an ace on her third match point. Williams could finally let out a victorious roar. She met Azarenka at the net for a long hug as the full crowd gave both players a standing ovation.
“She’s a very good friend. I would say we’re pretty close,” Williams said. “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.”
“Well, it’s not a surprise that we have mutual respect and love off the court. You know, on the court it’s a fight. It’s a war,” Azarenka said. “But after the match, it’s over. After the match, that’s it. Whoever won, you know, congratulations. It was quite an amazing match. I hope people enjoyed watching it. I hope we can do some more of that, because that’s what tennis is about today. And having such a match on International Women’s Day, I felt that was really incredible.”
It was an unusually cold and windy night in the desert. The temperature was 58 degrees at the start of the match with winds around 17 mph. Serena played the first game with a white dress on, but immediately put a black sweatshirt on to start the second game.
Serena now holds an 18-4 edge over Azarenka in their 22 meetings, none of which has ever come this early in an event. The only player Serena has played more in her career is sister Venus (30 times).
The most recent meeting between Serena and Azarenka came in the 2016 BNP Paribas Open championship match and Azarenka won that one 6-4, 6-4.
Neither played here in 2017 due to pregnancies. Azarenka had just given birth to son Leo in December of 2016, and Williams was pregnant, eventually giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia in September of 2017.
Both showed the type of form that they’ve been searching for since returning to the tour on Friday night. It’s a shame a match like this had to happen so early in the tournament. That’s a sentiment that Azarenka shares.
“You know, as much as she’s the toughest opponent I have ever played in my life, she’s my favorite person to play against,” Azarenka said. “I feel that, for me, why I still play is because I enjoy the challenges. If it’s easy, if it’s boring, I don’t want to play. But those type of challenges always motivate me. Serena is one of those players that I always look forward to playing. Again, maybe not in the second round, but my draws have been amazing my whole career (smiling). There is no surprise about that.”