Can’t blame Serena for her dominance

NEW YORK – It's hard to blame Serena Williams.

It's not her fault Maria Sharapova hasn't played her competitively since 2008.

And Williams is not to blame that when she uncharacteristically loses early in a Grand Slam, as she did in the fourth-round aberration at Wimbledon this year, the result is a dreadful final in which the player who beat her -- Sabine Lisicki -- admittedly seized up with fear and the eventual champion -- Marion Bartoli -- never had to play a top-10 seed and was in a state so broken down that she retired soon after.

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What can she do? It’s not Serena’s fault that she’s tearing through opponents.

It won't be Williams' responsibility if Victoria Azarenka fails to lift her play in the US Open final Sunday beyond what she has demonstrated the past two weeks and Williams crushes her for another championship stinker.

But how badly does women's tennis need Azarenka to come through and at least be as competitive as she was in last year's final, when Williams pulled out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 thriller?

And is Williams' dominance more a detriment than a blessing for women's tennis?

Again, hard to criticize Williams for being great. Her play at 31 years old is, by many standards, more magnificent than ever, the combination of power and athleticism now enhanced by her expert shot-making and overall experience.

She will be going after her 16th Grand Slam title Sunday and enters the final having lost fewer games (16) than she has in any other Grand Slam title match. If that's boring, one might argue, then so is Tiger Woods at his best.

But then Woods doesn't win by making his competition look bad.

What Azarenka's presence in the final promises is not merely No. 1 versus No. 2 but an opponent for Williams who is not likely to be intimidated, who has the mental strength to compete for three sets, and who has the physical strength to survive it and even prevail.

Although Williams leads their head-to-head series 12-3, Azarenka has won two of their past three matches, two on hard court, including last month's final in Cincinnati, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6).

In last year's US Open final, Williams had 45 unforced errors as she dropped her first set of the tournament, yet Azarenka also pushed her to come up with 44 winners, many of the spectacular variety.

It was the first time in 17 US Opens that the women's final went three sets, which is amazing in itself but just another sign that only the toughest of competitors, mentally and physically, will win in New York and that there isn't an abundance of potential candidates in any given year.

Indeed, perhaps most impressive for Azarenka was that, after dropping the opening set in just 34 minutes, she fought back and dominated the second, then led 5-3 in the third.

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Victoria Azarenka has won two of her past three matches against Williams. Here’s hoping she’s competitive Sunday.

But Azarenka was within two points of the championship before Williams reeled off four games in a row. She has to do better, and Williams didn't doubt she would.

"I definitely feel like, when she plays me, she plays her best, by far," Williams said. "I have seen her play other players, and when I play her, I'm playing a totally different player. Obviously she brings her best game, yeah."

Again, not the best endorsement for the No. 2-ranked player in the world or for women's tennis.

Don't be surprised Sunday if Azarenka gets off to a slow start. Typically, she takes awhile to get used to Williams' power early in their matches, but her most successful tactic is when she absorbs the pace and returns the ball deep to Williams' feet so that Williams lacks the time necessary to set up for her shots.

"I know her game as well as she knows mine," Williams said. "She knows what I do great, what I do bad and what I can do better. I know the same thing. At this point, it's just all about just playing some tennis now."

Having Williams in the women's final is a bonus, regardless of how it turns out.

ESPN's coverage for the Bartoli-Lisicki Wimbledon final earned a 1.1 overnight rating, down 45 percent from the Williams-Agnieszka Radwanska match in 2012 and the lowest ratings for a Wimbledon final since at least 1994.

Women's tennis needed a Williams-Azarenka final for Sunday. It would certainly help if it's competitive. But it would be even better if it weren't so rare.

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