There are not many players who can lay claim to any sort of “rivalry” with Serena Williams. Fortunately, for the sake of having a competitive US Open final, Victoria Azarenka is probably the closest thing to a rival that Williams has at the moment. Azarenka has won both of their hard court matches contested in 2013 (Williams won the third on clay).
In order to shed some light on their playing patterns–though everything here is based on small sample sizes, so beware of drawing broad conclusions–I decided to analyze their recent Cincinnati final.
Finding in-depth tennis stats is nearly impossible given the dearth of information coming from the WTA, but thanks to the hard work of Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract and Heavy Topspin, I was able to get all the stats I ever dreamed about by charting point-by-point data for the Cincinnati final. The full results are here, if you’d like to see the raw data.
Here are some takeaways from that match:
One of the reasons Serena Williams’ serve is so great is because of the variety she has at her disposal. In this match, she hit 47% serves down the T, 36% out wide, and 17% toward the body. Each of these kinds of serves were effective, winning her more than 55% of points for all three.
On the flip side, one of the reasons Azarenka appears to struggle with her serve is because she’s predictable. She heavily favors the serve down the T. In this match, she hit 56% serves down the T, 26% out wide, and 18% toward the body. She had good success with that serve down the T, winning 65% of those points, but the body serve won her just 47% of points.
Surprisingly, given Azarenka’s usual struggles on serve, both players were able to use their serve to win cheap points in this particular encounter.
Azarenka won 37, or 41.1% of all her service points in 1-3 shots, actually outdoing Serena, who won 40, or 34.4% of her service points in 1-3 shots.
Each of them hit 17 serves that fell under the category of aces + unreturnables + forced errors on the return, accounting for 18.9% of Azarenka’s service points, and 14.7% of Serena’s service points.
As we know, both women are extremely skilled returners. Azarenka put 88 of Serena’s 116 service points in play, good for 75.9%, and won 54% of those. Similarly, Williams put 65 of Azarenka’s 90 service points in play, good for 72.2%, and won 55% of those. Those numbers are about as close as you can get.
One key difference in this match that may have contributed to Azarenka’s win was return depth.
Williams was able to hit 47 returns back deep (52% of Azarenka’s service points), with 17 being classified as very deep (18.9%). Azarenka did better, hitting 71 deep returns (61.2% of Williams’ service points), with 33 very deep returns (28.4%). This was one of the big reasons Azarenka succeeded in neutralizing the lethal Williams serve.
Serena Williams hit more backhands than forehands in the match — 163-152. In points she won, she hit 80 forehands to 75 backhands, and in points lost she hit 72 forehands to 88 backhands. What does that tell us? Williams plays her best tennis when she’s able to control points with her forehand. Azarenka managed to keep her from doing that.
The same pattern occurred for Azarenka. In the match, she hit more forehands than backhands — 157-153, but in points she won, she hit 82 forehands to 72 backhands, and in points she lost, she hit 75 forehands to 81 backhands.
These numbers can’t tell us what will happen in the US Open final. But if Azarenka can have another good serving day like she did in Cincinnati, this could be another competitive match, and some of these patterns could play a key role in determining the outcome.