Saturday’s third-round match at the French Open between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka began as a ho-hum affair.
It became a match worthy of a major semifinal or final… and of the legacies of two major champions.
It then gave way to two of the best post-match press conferences of 2015 (in any sport, not just tennis), reminding us that we’re going to remember the attitudes and controversies of this match more than the quality, even though Serena Williams played magnificent tennis in the course of a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over Azarenka at Roland Garros.
This was a match that offered a little bit of everything… and not for the best of reasons. The post-match reality of this clash between two supremely formidable women’s tennis players was shaped by a bad call, one that jobbed Azarenka at a particularly important point in the proceedings.
After Azarenka rolled past a listless Serena in the first set, 6-3, the No. 27 seed built a 4-2 lead in the second set. The Belarusian was closing in on a crucial forward step in the attempt to make a pronounced climb in the rankings. Her fall was caused by a series of injuries and subsequent exacerbations of said injuries in 2014. A win over Serena at a major tournament would have given her the first particulary dramatic boost of 2015.
The value of this win would have transcended the immediate reality of moving into the fourth round at Roland Garros; a victory would have made it a lot more likely that Azarenka would no longer have to face Serena and other top-five players in the round of 32 or the round of 16 at various tournaments. Azarenka faced Serena halfway through the Madrid tournament a few weeks ago, on a Wednesday. Saturday in Paris, they met near the midpoint of the two-week event. Azarenka needed to bag this win to ensure that in future tournaments, she would be able to face Serena in quarterfinals instead of R-32 matches. With the accumulation of more wins and more points, Azarenka hoped to then work her way to a point where she could face Serena (and Maria Sharapova) in semifinals and finals, as Mother Nature intended.
Serena and Azarenka, after all, contested two U.S. Open finals and a Wimbledon semifinal. They’ve brought a considerable degree of entertainment value to modern women’s tennis. Azarenka might have won only once against Serena in the first five years of this rivalry (2008 through 2012), but since 2013, it’s been a much more even series. Serena won four of the previous six matches in this clash, with four matches going into a third set and seven total sets going either 7-5 or 7-6. As eagerly as many tennis fans anticipated this third-rounder in Paris when the draw was revealed, many more fans lamented the fact that two box-office draws had to play each other so early.
In the longer run of time, it will benefit women’s tennis if Serena and Azarenka can meet near the endpoints of tournaments, rather than near the midpoints of the biggest events on tour.
With Azarenka up 6-3, 4-2, an important goal stood within reach.
Yet, Serena Williams reached out and — as has often been the case in the past — swiped that taste of glory from Azarenka’s grasp… with a little help.
More on the day’s controversy in a bit, but first, let’s indeed recognize that Serena — the author of some truly terrible tennis in a second-round escape against Anna-Lena Friedsam on Thursday — looked bereft of inspiration for most of this match. This was not a surprise, though; Serena had not been particularly sharp at any previous point in the claycourt season. She was dismantled in the Madrid semifinals by Petra Kvitova. She withdrew from Rome as a precautionary measure to ensure that she’d be right for Paris. However, worries about an elbow injury are hovering over Serena in the City of Light. Her outlook was defined by darkness as shadows covered Court Philippe Chatrier in the late-evening hours, and Azarenka built her set-and-a-break lead.
Serena looked like a player who was in trouble before the tournament started, and nothing from the first 15 games of this match did anything to alter that impression. As often as Serena’s been able to ruin Azarenka’s aspirations in the past, this certainly felt like a day when the greatest female player of the 21st century would run out of magic.
Then, however, PRESTO!
A great champion, guiding herself into the competitive trance every elite athlete hopes to acquire (but can never guarantee), began to calibrate her backhand, blasting it down the line and (especially) crosscourt with ruthless efficiency. Azarenka tossed in the occasional error, but Serena’s abrupt reversal from a 2-4 deficit to a 5-4 lead in the second set was far more the product of her improvement than anything Azarenka failed to do.
Then came the moment that could not be escaped or avoided in the post-match pressers, the call that hooked Azarenka in a pivotal scoreboard situation.
Azarenka, down set point and serving at 4-5 in the second, hit a groundstroke to Serena’s deuce side. Audio-visual replays of the point indicated that a late and ultimately incorrect out call from the linesperson on the baseline occurred just after Serena made contact with the ball. That being the case, chair umpire Kader Nouni should have awarded Azarenka the point.
Had the call come before Serena’s contact with the ball, the call would have impeded the shot, necessitating a replay of the point. However, given the way the sequence unfolded, Nouni should have given Azarenka the point, which would have changed the score to deuce in that 10th game of the set.
He did not. Serena then won the replay of the break point to take the second set.
After falling behind, 2-0, in the third set, Serena won the last six games of the match with more laser-like groundstrokes and two very untimely errors by Azarenka (at 2-all, 30-30, and then at 2-3, 30-40).
Back to that controvesial point at the end of set two:
It is true that Serena’s contact with the ball and the origination of the out call were separated by an extremely small sliver of time. This was, in baseball parlance, a “bang-bang” call, a 50-50 proposition in real time. For this reason, the person most responsible for Azarenka’s awful luck was the linesperson who blew the call. However, given the enormity of the situation and the clear lack of certainty about whether or not Serena’s shot was impeded by the out call, the better use of discretion by Nouni would have been to award Azarenka the point.
The rest is French Open history, and it led to this parade of unforgettable images and, later, some equally unforgettable words:
When you're both like "Bye, Felicia" pic.twitter.com/2UcRjo12RD
— WTA Reactions (@WTAreactions) May 30, 2015
Victoria Azarenka: "My honest opinion, I think that call was bullshit and everybody knows it." #rg15
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 30, 2015
Azarenka not mad at Serena: "We don't have any air to clear but I gave her a pair of my shorts because she really liked them. True story."
— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) May 30, 2015
And then the mic-dropper from Serena, referencing her own past:
Serena likes Azarenka's idea of adding video replay. "Because sometimes you may not have foot faulted…" #RG15
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 30, 2015
Good match. Extreme controversy. Legendary pressers and vines.
This was a third-round match; one can only hope it becomes a semifinal or final again before too much time elapses.
The brief postscript on this match:
Serena remains a player who is grasping and groping, trying to snap herself back into the form of the player who won the Australian Open and Miami earlier this season. Her elbow might be the culprit here, but seeing the last one and a half sets against Azarenka reminds us that one of the all-time greats in women’s tennis could still work through patchy form and make a run at this tournament.
Yet, can Serena continue to get away with being average (certainly by her standards if not by an absolute measurement) for whole sets and prolonged periods in matches?
A great champion, struggling yet surviving — it’s not the easiest way to go through a tournament, but this seems to be the path Serena Williams must travel in order to claim the 2015 French Open. One can’t ask for a much more compelling storyline; it’s a treat for fans of women’s tennis.
Many of those same fans simply wish that Serena’s story wouldn’t have to intersect with Victoria Azarenka in the first week of a major anymore.