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Serena-Azarenka was more than the sum of its very impressive parts

Matt Zemek

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka took us on a carousel ride bathed in nostalgia on Friday night in Indian Wells.

Nostalgia: It’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels: round and around, back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

That was Don Draper from the Season 1 finale of “Mad Men” in one of the show’s most iconic moments. Those words so richly express the magnitude and the magic of the reunion between Serena and Vika, two women who bring out the best in each other on the court and who have — through their shared motherhood and their journeys through intensely difficult experiences of various kinds — have acquired deep and genuine affection and respect for each other.

It is this totality of human feeling and awareness — principally between them, but then flowing through the larger tennis community across the planet — which made Serena’s 7-5, 6-3 win on Friday so special.

This was a high-quality match, to be sure, but it was so good in part because the nasty, windy conditions represented a formidable obstacle for tennis players. Serena and Vika powered through those obstacles — not to the extent that they were perfect, but to the extent that they were able to generally triumph over the conditions.

When one of the two players made an unforced error, it was as though the prevailing conditions in Southern California were reminding everyone that they weren’t going away, and letting the audience make sure of that fact. Therefore, on each and every point in which Serena and Vika produced pure magic, the quality of the point gained a “value-added” dimension, as though it counted 150 percent, not merely 100 percent, on a scale of measurement.

This match, played in windy conditions, was the best 7-5, 6-3 match Tennis With An Accent contributor Nick Nemeroff had ever seen. He said so in a tweet.

I commented in response to Nick’s tweet that a similar match acquired high marks a decade ago:

The pure quality of the match, relative to the conditions, was impressive when viewed through a narrow lens on its own terms.

Then consider all the additional contexts which accompanied this match:

Serena hadn’t played since her ankle-roll-caused loss in the Australian Open to Karolina Pliskova.

Azarenka steamrolled Danielle Collins in Acapulco but then lost in the quarterfinals to Sofia Kenin. She did not enter this tournament at the height of her powers.

Then realize that this was a round-of-64 match. These are often the occasions in which players are getting acquainted to all the normal adjustments they have to make at tournaments: court speed, the feel of the ball, the sight lines on the ball toss, etc. Yet, they had to make these organic adjustments while also dealing with the weather conditions.

Round-of-64 matches are also defined — for top players, anyway — by the need to manage emotions. Top players expect to play a full week or fortnight at the big tournaments, so highly emotive or electric R-64s aren’t very common.

This was not a common match or a common round-of-64 draw, to put it mildly. Azarenka and Serena were in full battle mode, supremely engaged in this contest from the start. The ferocity of their hitting was exceeded only by the tenacity of their competitive resolve. This looked and felt like the heavyweight bout it was from the first point to the very last. The second set was less exalted than the soaring first stanza, but the whole match was the “boxing without the blood” prizefight we always want tennis to become at its very best.

There were so many two-point sequences in this match when one player won a point in spectacular or authoritative fashion, only for the other player to win the next point with similar brilliance or ruthlessness.

There were also several periods in this match when one player won four straight points or four out of five points, only for the other player to dig in and then counter with a similar run of play. Neither player was able to take full control of the match, but Serena was better at the business end of sets, getting a few more free points both on her own serve and on her return. Azarenka’s return of serve was outstanding in this match, as was her level of tennis. Serena merely did what Vika did and exceeded it by a slight margin.

All of these observations might create a sufficient account of this contest, but the final and essential point to make is that all those details didn’t tell the full story — they told MOST of it, but not ALL of it.

The remaining point which has to be conveyed in response to Serena-Vika at Indian Wells is that women’s tennis is still searching for The Rivalry — the matchup which can regularly occur at the majors and electrify the sport.

To be sure, women’s tennis is doing really, really well, thank you very much. The sport is in a very healthy place with quality depth and compelling matches in early rounds of tournaments. Many different players can — and do — win women’s titles these days. The Naomi Osaka-Petra Kvitova Australian Open final was a superb match.

Women’s tennis has almost everything it could possibly want these days — ALMOST everything.

The one basic ingredient women’s tennis could use is a rivalry which entrenches itself in the public mind and provides repeatedly gripping confrontations… even if one player wins most of the time.

Serena-Vika IS the rivalry in 2010s-era women’s tennis which fans gravitate to. They remember the U.S. Open slugfests. They remember Vika at the top tier of the sport and long for a return to those days. So many people in the global tennis community are pulling for Azarenka to regain the status she had in the sport in 2012 and 2013. Those times are fondly remembered, and a part of the magic of this match is how fully it recalled that period in WTA tennis.

The Serena-Vika head-to-head is not particularly close. Serena now leads the series 19-4, but since 2012, this has been a very tough matchup for the 37-year-old with 23 major titles. Most of the matches since 2012 have been three-setters, and even the straight-setters such as Friday night’s tussle have been contentious.

Serena and Vika remind us that a rivalry doesn’t have to be a series in which wins are evenly distributed. Bringing out the best in an opponent can satisfy what a rivalry is, and fulfill the idea of what it means in a larger sense.

More than that, Serena and Vika — with their warm embrace at net, shown in the cover photo for this story — wrapped this beautiful gift in generosity and richness of spirit.

This was a tremendous match, and yet simultaneously, a match which went far beyond the raw sum of its very impressive parts.

Thank you, Serena and Vika. Let’s do this much more often, shall we?

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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