Friday, March 8, 2019 - Serena Williams plays Victoria Azarenka in the 2nd round of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
And they knew they were in for it, right from the start.
A packed house was bundled up in their blankets and sweaters on a chilly Friday night at the BNP Paribas Open, eerily silent in anticipation for a blockbuster second-round encounter between two former champions who had last battled each other for the trophy three years ago.
Sets don’t get much tighter than the first that Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka played tonight, and the score was as tight as both competitors were intense. All but two service games went to deuce, with both players saving multiple break points on multiple occasions as their respective weapons were out in full force, illustrating the often unsung brilliance of women’s sport, fittingly, on International Women’s Day.
One point it’s an un-returnable serve, the next it’s a line-clipping return on the baseline. Rinse and repeat. The 23-time Grand Slam champ and her former world No. 1 opponent found themselves locked at deuce more often than not, with each coming up with miraculous winners and sharp angles to keep each other on their toes and the crowd on the edge of their seats. At one point, the two exchanged applause for each other – the first on an Azarenka return winner and the second on a cross-court buggy-whip forehand from Serena to which Azarenka had no reply but a couple of taps on her racquet with her hand.
It was tough to choose just one 😬
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 9, 2019
After eight of 11 break points saved and a stunning 73 minutes of play, the first set belonged to Serena after a taste of Azarenka’s own medicine – a devastating return winner.
One might have forgiven a drop in intensity from the Belarusian, currently ranked 48 after off-court issues slowed her comeback following the birth of her son, but that wasn’t in her script. She’d break in the first game of the second set, only to be met with a break back at the hands of a zoned-in Serena. Proceedings went along with serve until the always-pivotal seventh game, when the ubiquitous sporting legend channeled that certain X factor that has allowed her the hitherto 17-4 record against Azarenka.
Saving two more break points in the final game with impeccable serving and devastatingly accurate ball-striking, Williams would finally seal the match with – what else? – one of her signature aces.
“I truly love her, she’s a really good friend,” Serena said of Azarenka after the match, following a long, smile-filled embrace between the two at the net. “She’s a fellow mom and she’s a former No. 1 just like me. It’s hard to play someone you’re so close with but it’s also really invigorating and cool.”
“Playing champions like Victoria makes me realize I have a ton of improvement to do,” she said, ominously – and it just so happens she plays another two-time Grand Slam champion next in the form of Garbiñe Muguruza.