DOHA, Qatar - All week the eyes of the world were on Doha as Serena Williams was going for the No.1 ranking, and she got it - but at the last minute, the outgoing No.1 made a major statement, that the battle for the top spot isn't over by any means. Victoria Azarenka snapped a nine-match losing streak against Williams and overcame some very tough conditions to win the Qatar Total Open.
Williams just needed to reach the semifinals of the Premier-level event to secure a return to No.1, and it's an historic moment too, as the 31-year-old is the oldest player ever to be No.1. And she made it one step further than that too, beating Maria Sharapova in that semifinal and reaching the final.
But for Azarenka, letting go of one thing was enough, seemingly determined to hang onto her Qatar Total Open title. Though she had lost the pair's last nine meetings Azarenka didn't seem intimidated at all this time, coming forward when she needed to and holding her ground from the baseline.
And perhaps biggest of all, holding her nerve when it mattered most - in the tie-break at the end of a marathon first set she fought off a set point to take it, and after dropping the second set she rebounded right away at the start of the third, building a quick 3-0 lead. In the end those two pieces of the match made all the difference. Game, set and match to the 23-year-old Azarenka, 76(6) 26 63.
"I won't say I didn't feel pressure, I was just really into the match and really focused on what I had to do," Azarenka said. "Near the end she saved a match point with a good serve - that's what you normally expect to get from Serena when she's in trouble - a bullet. But it wasn't a big deal, really - I just had to keep my composure and make another opportunity and create another match point."
And on this one compared to their last nine? "I just did everything better today," she added.
It has gone almost unnoticed, but Azarenka is putting together the kind of start to the season she had last year, when she went 26-0 before finally falling in the quarterfinals of Miami - it was the best start to a season since Martina Hingis went 37-0 to start 1997. Azarenka is 14-0 so far this year.
Azarenka talked about the feeling of defending her Doha title. "It feels incredible," she said. "This tournament is really great - I've mentioned this so many times. It had such a strong field going into it and I'm really glad that in the end of the tournament I'm the one who's holding the trophy.
"I played really well this entire week. It's never easy to play five matches every day with the best players in the world - but I'm glad I was really consistent this week and achieved my goal."
Both players finished the match with positive numbers, actually both putting together a +3 winners-to-unforced errors differential (Azarenka was 30-27, Williams 51-48). But Azarenka won just a few more crucial points - in fact she won just two points more than Williams in the match (105-103).
Williams is still riding a big wave of momentum however, winning 60 of her last 64 matches since the start of last year's clay court season - the only losses came in the first round of the French Open (to Virginie Razzano), the quarterfinals of Cincinnati (to Angelique Kerber), the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (to Sloane Stephens) and of course Sunday's loss in the Doha final (to Azarenka).
Williams wasn't impressed with her unforced error tally during the match. "48? Oh my gosh, that's so many," she commented. "On my end it probably wasn't the best quality - I made so many errors. It was just weird. My serve, oh my gosh - it was just one of those days. I'm having too many of those days. I've got to cut them out. This whole week I just don't think I played my best tennis. But I was fighting every match. I was really excited to make it to the final with the game I was playing all week.
"I can't play that quality game against a top player like Victoria. I have to be able to pick up my game, and I wasn't able to do that today. I stayed at a 2 out of 10, and I really can't play that low.
"But it's good. Honestly I feel great. I feel like there is so much more I can work on, and there's so much room for improvement for me, so the fact that's still available is really exciting."
Williams had some very nice words for Azarenka, too. "I always respect Victoria. I think she's a really good player. Obviously she's so consistent and she plays well. She's such a solid player. It's nice to always play someone and go home and you're like, 'Okay, I didn't do great, but let me work harder.'
"I think that she inspires a lot of people to work harder, and definitely me."
Those sentiments were echoed by Azarenka: "Any tournament I'm happy to play against Serena. She's absolutely right - I feel like we're pushing each other to go to the limit every time, to step up, to improve, and that's a tremendous motivation to have. You know somebody is out there who wants to push you.
"For me, it's an incredible privilege to be in that position."