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Keys To Victory: Azarenka's Challenge

Read about some of the statistics-inspired keys to victory Victoria Azarenka might need to employ if she's to beat Serena Williams in the final of the Brisbane International on Saturday night...

Published January 03, 2014 12:12

Victoria Azarenka must employ guerilla tactics in order to gain the edge against Serena Williams in their blockbuster clash in the final of the Brisbane International Saturday night.

Playing conventionally is not an option for the World No.2.

Azarenka defeated Williams twice in finals last year, both times in three sets, and is better equipped than any player in the world to shock the World No.1 to kick off the New Year.

Here are the five keys to victory for Azarenka.

1. Don't pound the backhand.
You only have to look back to their last meeting in the final of the US Open to see going toe-to-toe with Williams in the ad court is a losing option. The typical tactic of trying to break down an opponent's backhand failed for Azarenka as Williams' backhand was the most dominant shot on the court, racking up 13 winners - 11 groundstroke and two return. In comparison, Azarenka could only manage two backhand winners and more than 60% of Azarenka's groundstroke errors resulted from Williams' backhand wing. The only reason Azarenka should go to Williams' backhand is to run her to that side to open up a hole in the deuce court to attack her running forehand later in the point.

2. Mix it up.
Azarenka will have to defend more than she likes but that doesn't mean she still can't wrestle control of the points. In last year's US Open final Azarenka hit four drop shots and won every one of them. She also won 67% (10/15) of her approach shots, successfully moving the battle from the back of the court to the front. Her pieces de resistance were two approach shots directly off Williams' serve with Azarenka down a set and 4-1 that completely changed the momentum in the final and amazingly saw Azarenka climb back and win the second set in a tie-break.

3. Sieze the moment.
There will be windows of opportunity for Azarenka and she must play with courage and aggression when they arrive. In Williams' semifinal against Maria Sharapova, Williams was the first to face a break point at 1-1, 30-40 in the opening set, but Sharapova failed to convert and was immediately broken in the next game and would only win one more game for the set. Sharapova led 3-1 in the second set and also held a set point in the tie-break but could not finish what she started. A point here and a point there is all that is needed to decide mega-matches like these.

4. Extra focus on opening points.
Scoreboard pressure is a key ally for Azarenka. Key analytics from SAP showed that when Sharapova lost the opening point of five of her service games she never recovered to win any of them. By contrast, Sharapova won four of five when getting the early 15-0 lead. Williams won every game (4/4) when she won the opening point of her service games but only won 33% (2/6) when she dropped the opening point, including none (0/3) in the second set. Momentum is a powerful force and playing Williams is a formidable enough challenge without having to attempt it with added scoreboard pressure.

5. Don't double fault.
This is the by far the worst way to lose a point and Azarenka had eight in her three set semifinal win over Jelena Jankovic. Only one came when she was already trailing in the point score, but she started three games with a double fault and threw in two more with the score critically poised at 30-30. Azarenka also threw in seven in her quarterfinal win over Stefanie Voegele with three coming at 30-30 and two at deuce - effectively handing her opponent valuable break points for free.

Defeating Williams is the toughest ask in all of tennis at the moment. Williams went 78-4 in 2013, but two of those losses were to Azarenka. Also, while Williams is 13-3 in the overall head-to-head, they were 2-2 in 2013. Like they are fond of saying Down Under, it's going to be a "ripper" and once again raise the profile and excitement level of the sport.

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.

SAP

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