Tennis strategy can be ridiculously simple at times - even when the two best players in the world compete against each other.
Serena Williams wanted to play points in the deuce court. Victoria Azarenka didn't. Ultimately Williams got the better of the match-up to win the final of the Brisbane International, 64 75, to capture her 58th WTA title and her 22nd victory in a row since Cincinnati last summer.
Williams won little battles all over the court but none more important than dominating the direction of baseline rallies away from her opponent's stronger backhand in the ad court.
Improved analytics this season from SAP and Hawk-Eye uncovered Williams' primary forehand strategy where she directed 67% of forehands crosscourt to Azarenka's forehand and only 33% down the line to the backhand. Williams finished with six forehand winners and 11 errors (-5 total) while Azarenka managed four forehand winners but was forced into committing 15 errors (-11 total).
This primary forehand strategy was strongly supported from the backhand wing as Williams amazingly hit more backhands down the line (to Azarenka's forehand) in the match than crosscourt. Williams constantly tried to control the direction of baseline exchanges to keep probing at Azarenka's forehand from all directions of the court. Williams hit a remarkable 54% of total backhands down the line, including a crushing winner to break serve at 5-5 in the second set to surge towards the finish line.
Azarenka on the other hand was looking to play as much ad court tennis as possible. Azarenka hit 60% of her backhands crosscourt to Williams' backhand, saving her lethal backhand down the line as a secondary tactic. Azarenka's forehand was mainly used to redirect traffic down the line (to Williams' backhand) where she hit 58% of her forehands trying to manipulate the direction of the rally in her favor.
Williams also held a clear advantage with her serve at the start of the point hitting 10 aces and no double faults to Azarenka's four aces and six double faults. Williams also went after Azarenka's forehand with her first serve directing 69% (18/26) of first serves to Azarenka's forehand wing. Azarenka won 44% (8/18) starting with a forehand return off a first serve and only 12% (1/8) with a backhand return.
Williams' clever strategy of serving primarily to the forehand forced Azarenka to respect that direction first, which drastically lowered the winning percentage on her normally strong backhand return side.
Both players were extremely aggressive returning with the majority of first serves and all second serves contacted well inside the baseline with both players looking to gain the initial advantage in the rally. With Azarenka serving the opening point at 2-2 in the first set, Williams stepped into a 153kph first serve and crushed it from well inside the baseline crosscourt for a winner. First strike tennis was in full force on Pat Rafter Arena.
The only break of serve in the first set came on the only break point at 3-3, ad out, as Williams' master plan of attacking Azarenka's forehand paid dividends when Azarenka tried to squeeze a forehand down the line to Williams' backhand but it drifted wide into the alley to gift the first break of serve. Azarenka did not help herself at all in that game, beginning it with a double fault and also throwing in another one at 40-30.
Azarenka quickly fell behind 2-0 in the second set, double faulting at 0-30 in her opening service game and then missing another forehand, this time in the net, trying to force the ball through the ad court to Williams' backhand.
But being down a set and break relaxed and even energized the World No.2 as she came roaring back to win the next four games in a row but got broken when Williams hit an overhead winner to get back on serve at 3-4.
Williams' victory was built upon executing a ruthlessly simple game plan and not beating herself with loose mistakes. She is clearly still head and shoulders above the pack and will remain there until someone figures out how to make her uncomfortable in a point first.
Craig O'Shannessy is an Australian tour coach who studies matches to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. He runs a tennis academy in Austin, Texas and a website called www.braingametennis.com.