A thoroughly entertaining ten days in the desert will conclude for the women with the world number one, Serena Williams taking on the number 13 seed, Victoria Azarenka in the 2016 final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. This will be their first match-up in eight months…
Friday night’s semi-finals looked enticing on paper and both delivered; Serena Williams marched into the final with a tenth consecutive victory over Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-4 7-6(1). It was one of, if not, the best performance that Radwanska has mustered against the world number one. She served well and in pulses, played some aggressive tennis. I hope she learns from this match and doesn’t back off next time because it’s the way to go!
Serena started sluggishly with her footwork letting her down. Radwanska did well to notice this and take advantage. The world number three (soon-to-be world number two) went up an early break but the key to the set was her inability to back it up with a double break. The American saved four break points across two service games to stay in touch.
After holding to 3-4* in the first set, Serena had something to work with and came roaring back in a blaze of return winners to win the first set, 6-4. It looked like the match would be over quickly as the world number one rushed into a 3-0 second set lead. However, Radwanska showed some wonderful spirit, producing her best tennis to level up proceedings. This wasn’t really a dip in Serena’s level, but more PEAK-Aga, going for her shots and hitting some fierce winners. Radwanska continued to stay in contention, navigating her way through the tricky serve-with-scoreboard-pressure-game at 4-5 and eventually breaking to go up *6-5.
The second set was one of the best of the year in terms of quality and Serena found another level and then some. She produced a tremendous instinctive forehand pass on break point to force the tiebreak. From there on, her footwork was sharp, her serve was firing and the rhythm on return was unstoppable. Serena dropped just one point in the tiebreak to book her place in the final. The stats from both players (see below) showed what a brilliant match this was.
The second of the semi-finals saw Azarenka defeat Karolina Pliskova in three sets, 7-6(1) 1-6 6-2, in another fascinating encounter. Pliskova had led 5-3* in the first set after Azarenka had played a horrendous service game at 2-2, chucking in three consecutive double faults. Pliskova threatened again on yet another inconsistent service game from Azarenka, but the Belarusian’s fighting spirit saw her survive two set points.
Pliskova lost a little bite on her shots and started missing first serves (up till then, the serve had been on the money) but on the whole, it was Azarenka who turned it around in superb fashion; she played some aggressive and dynamic tennis to break back and dance through a one-sided tiebreak.
Azarenka had the momentum at the beginning of the second set but failed to build on it as Pliskova saved four break points in the first game. The serving yips came back for Azarenka and continued throughout the second set, feeding into the rest of her game. Pliskova sensed her opportunity, began to strike again and won the second set handily, 6-1.
Azarenka steadied herself at the start of the third set with a big hold of serve. The crucial moment of the third set came with Pliskova serving at 1-2; in a three-deuce game, Azarenka eventually got the break, having previously failed to take advantage of a break point on a poor smash that went long. While Pliskova was producing some thunderous on-the-run, down-the-line winners, Azarenka’s rampant returning and dynamicity around the court were the difference. Once again, there were positive stats from both players; in fact Pliskova hit more winners and less unforced errors; the key stat was that Azarenka was 17 out of 20 on net approaches…
Head-to-head record: Azarenka has been one of the best at playing Williams yet she has still only won three matches! Serena leads the head-to-head, 19-3, but many of their matches have been close. All three of their clashes in 2015 went the distance; Serena saved three match points in Madrid (7-6(5) 3-6 7-6(1)), came from a set and a break down at the French Open (3-6 6-4 6-2) and then recovered from a set down again at Wimbledon (3-6 6-2 6-3) in what was by far and away their highest quality match of the year.
Interesting Stat: While Serena and Vika have played each other 22 times, this will be their first encounter at Indian Wells. Also, all three of Azarenka’s victories have come in finals in Miami (6-3 6-1, 2009), Doha (7-6(2) 2-6 6-3, 2013) and Cincinnati (2-6 6-2 7-6(6)).
Final thoughts: Serena-Vika matches are always fun and this is a fitting conclusion to what has been a fascinating tournament for the women in the desert. Azarenka has consistently demonstrated her ability as the number one player to contend with Williams on the court; however, in 2015, she was missing that final piece in the jigsaw. She showed that she can live with Serena for a set, may-be a set and half, but couldn’t find a consistently high enough level (often on the serve) to get the W.
Azarenka will be well-prepared for this match having faced the Pliskova serve and in the process, produced a very impressive returning display. Serena is going for her first Indian Wells title since 2001 so there could be some strong emotions. I’d give Azarenka a set for sure, but as to the match, I think Williams’s level this year is a step up and that she will prevail for her first title of the year…
Prediction: S.Williams d. Azarenka in 3 sets