Today, the world No.1 will take on Victoria Azarenka as she attempts to win her fifth title in New York and her 17th major overall. Should she win – and no one is putting money on any other result – she will match Roger Federer’s tally of trophies, that record that has established him as the old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in the men’s game.
Yet, the women’s tour has always failed to live up to the standards set by the men. The female greats have racked up huge numbers of titles – Margaret Court won 24 grand slam singles titles, Steffi Graf won 22 – but there was never the strength in depth in the women’s game to make the comparison with the men seem fair. Not a lot has changed over the decades and Williams’s domination of the rankings and the major tournaments shows up the dearth of decent opposition.
Yet, for all that, everyone who has ever watched Williams win when she is injured, when she is unfit or when she is simply not playing well agrees that the women’s game has never seen a champion quite like her. When she is in her pomp, she is a sight to behold. She is a heavyweight amongst flyweights, a tiger amongst kittens. And should some young upstart push her way through to challenge the champion, Williams is more terrifying than ever.
Since she lost in the first round of the French Open last year, Williams has lost just five matches. Four of those losses have come this year and two of them have been to Azarenka. But when she has lost to the Belarusian, it has been at the smaller events, the tournaments that do not really matter. Last year in the US Open final, Azarenka led Williams 5-3 in the final set and still could not close out the victory. Williams in a grand slam final is fierce; Williams in a grand slam final on home turf is ferocious.
The world No.1 has only lost in four major finals in her career: twice to her sister Venus, once to Maria Sharapova and once, in 2011, to Sam Stosur in Flushing Meadows. That loss, though, came just a couple of months after Williams had come back from a season off suffering from a serious foot injury and a pulmonary embolism that almost killed her. Suffice to say that when Williams gets to a big final, there is usually only one winner.
Should she win today, she would be just one title away from equalling the achievements of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, both 18-time grand slam winners. The thought of matching two such great names of the sport is both inspiring and slightly scary so Williams is trying to sidestep the issue.
“I thought about that,” Williams said, having beaten Li Na in the semi-final, “but I can’t think about that. It’s still so close but it’s still so far. I have to win against a great player on Sunday and I have to play great tennis. Nothing is guaranteed.”
But experience tells her and Azarenka that the odds are stacked in the American’s favour. Azarenka is the world No.2, she has won two grand slam titles of her own but today she is definitely the underdog.
“You’ve got to fight against Serena,” Azarenka said. “You’ve got to run, you’ve got to grind, and you’ve got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have. She’s obviously an amazing player. She’s the greatest of all time.
“We know each other pretty well. I know her strengths, she knows my strengths. That’s what it’s all about, about those turning points, who wants it more, who’s willing to go for it more. It’s a bunch of combinations.
“I feel like I’m a better player than last year. I’m a more complete player. That’s what you aim for after one year of work. So in terms of that, I’m pretty pleased.”
Azarenka was talking a good fight but the statistics seldom lie. She has won just three times in 15 meetings with Williams and after slugging it out with Flavia Pennetta for more than an hour and half and 13 breaks of serve in the semi-final, there is little to suggest that she can alter the balance of those stats today.