On Sunday, Williams will have two more significant benchmarks at stake when she contests the 21st Grand Slam final of her career.
With a victory, she would claim her 17th Grand Slam title, putting her one away from the 18 shared by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, players she hailed earlier in the tournament as “icons” of the game, along with Steffi Graf, whose 22 major single titles lead all players in the Open Era.
A victory would also reward Williams with the biggest single payday in tennis history, $3.6 million, which includes a $1 million bonus for dominating the North American hard-card season that precedes the U.S. Open. (Rafael Nadal would also collect a $1 million bonus for winning Monday’s men’s final.)
Williams, who has won three of the past five Grand Slam events, insists she’s not calculating her closing-speed on Evert and Navratilova’s mark.
“I never really want to focus on the numbers,” said Williams, who’ll turn 32 on Sept. 26. “I started playing tennis not to be the greatest, but just because I had a racket and a dream. Now people are saying I could be [the greatest]. But for me, I’m just not there yet.
“People like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, they are just, to me, the ultimate icons in the history of women’s tennis.”
The money, she added, isn’t driving her either.
“Last time I had this opportunity, it blew up,” Williams said, alluding to the 2011 U.S. Open final in which she was cited with a code violation for verbally abusing the chair umpire and fell to Samantha Stosur in straight sets, squandering the $1 million bonus. “Money has never been my motivation. I have always just played to win Grand Slams.”
Navratilova said Saturday she fully expected Williams to not just equal but surpass the 18 major titles she and Evert amassed. “She’s playing the best tennis of her career,” Navratilova said. “She’s the most focused she has been, and she is fresh.”
When Williams and Azarenka met in last year’s final, they staged a thriller, with the American storming back from a 3-5 deficit in the third set to claim the title.
But Azarenka has won two of their three meetings this year, including a hard-court final in Cincinnati last month.
“It has got to make her more eager after a loss like [Cincinnati], more determined,” Evert said of Williams on the eve of the tournament. “Every time you lose to a player, you do have doubt.”
Azarenka is better than any current player at absorbing Williams’s power and retrieving her well-placed blasts, treating each match against her as cause to celebrate rather than cower despite a 3-12 record against her.
“It’s something that every tennis player dreams of: To be in the final of the U.S. Open and play against the best player in the world,” Azarenka said Friday.
While she has been fearless against Williams, the 24-year-old Azarenka, who is from Belarus, isn’t immune from wild swings of emotion over her own play.
Like other players with combustible on-court personalities, such as John McEnroe and Andy Roddick, Azarenka treads a fine line between getting pumped up by her occasional outbursts and coming unglued because of them. She considers her third-set collapse in last year’s final a constructive step in learning how to manage her temperament.
“Mentally I felt like it was a great turning point for me, on some level, for my career,” Azarenka said. “Just a really good experience.”
If she can keep her emotions in check, Azarenka knows she has the weapons and will to give Williams her first genuine battle of the tournament.
“You’ve got to fight,” Azarenka said of the challenge Williams presents. “You’ve got to run. You’ve got to grind. And you’ve got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have.
“She’s obviously an amazing player. She’s the greatest of all time.”
Note: On Saturday, 15-year-old “Tornado” Alicia Black advanced to the junior girls’ final with a 7-5, 6-3 upset of seventh-ranked Antonia Lottner. Black, who is from Boca Raton, Fla., and has a younger tennis-playing sister named Hurricane, will face No. 2 Ana Konjuh in Sunday’s final.