CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams in an absolute nail-biter in the final of the Western & Southern Open on Sunday, edging the World No.1 in a third set breaker, 26 62 76(6).
Having lost 12 of their 14 previous meetings, things weren't looking so peachy for Azarenka going into the match, and dropping a lopsided 6-2 first set in just 26 minutes certainly didn't help. But from there Williams lost her edge just a little bit - she hit 26 unforced errros to lose the middle set by the same 6-2 scoreline, and Azarenka broke for a 4-2 lead in the third, getting to 30-0 in that service game too.
Of course, counting Williams out of any match is a huge mistake, and she definitely lived up to that reputation, winning 11 of the next 14 points to break back, hold and break again, serving for the match at 5-4. But Azarenka pushed the set to a tie-break - the first to seven points would clinch the title.
Azarenka brought up the first match point at 6-5, hitting a big serve out wide on the deuce side, to which Williams replied with a huge crosscourt backhand return that drew an error. But Azarenka would clinch the title on her second match point at 7-6, as Williams hit one last forehand into the net.
At the end of the day Williams was by far the aggressor during the match, hitting 47 winners and 49 unforced errors, while Azarenka had a more conservative 20 winners to 30 unforced errors. But despite the favorable differential for Williams - and the fact that she actually won more points in the match, 104 to 102 - the World No.2 just had the upper hand against the World No.1 when it mattered most.
"Obviously a big win," Azarenka said. "It was a great match. I'm really, really pleased with the way I pulled it out. It was a great battle. Nothing was given away. It was pure fight. I'm really happy.
"The important thing is how I adjusted after the first set. I really stepped it up. I was fighting hard and changed my game and I just have to take that into consideration the next time we play against each other, to try to be there right from the beginning, because it's crucial. You don't want to give any chances at any point because Serena is such an incredible player that she will take everything."
"She played really well," Williams said. "She was really aggressive the last two sets, which changed the momentum. She's a great player. There's a reason she's winning Grand Slams and doing so well."
Azarenka comes away with her third WTA title of the year, having also won the Australian Open and Doha. It was the 17th WTA title of her career, and 16th on hardcourt (Marbella in 2011 was on clay).
This was also Azarenka's second career win over a reigning World No.1 - her first came against the very same opponent, beating Williams in the final of the Sony Open Tennis in Miami back in 2009.
Azarenka clearly announced herself as Williams' biggest competition for the upcoming US Open title.
"I will not be a favorite," Azarenka said. "We're in the United States, and Serena is No.1 in the world, a great champion, the defending champion, so I still think that she's going to be a favorite there.
"Second favorite, third favorite, I don't care about that. But this is a great boost of confidence."
Even though she still leads the head-to-head, 12-3, Williams said they have a very strong rivalry.
"We go against each other really tough," Williams said. "I think it's a good rivalry. I'm No.1. She's No.2. So we have a rivalry that consists of meeting in the final, which makes it even more exciting.
"It's good to have someone out there that can play hard and fight so tough out there."
And Williams would also call herself an Azarenka fan. "I'm a big Victoria fan. Whenever I'm not at a tournament, I root for her. I think she's just the ultimate competitor on the court and just really nice too. She leaves everything on the court and nothing personal, and everything off the court she's just so professional and so nice. I mean, I really get along with her. She's definitely just a great person.
"So once the match was over today, we kind of went into our regular relationship again, which is just cool, like, 'What's up girl? How are you doing?' kind of thing. She's just a really cool person."