DOHA - Serena Williams may have the No. 1 ranking, but Victoria Azarenka has the Qatar Total Open trophy for the second straight year.
The top two players in the world battled for three sets on Sunday night, with the Belarusian prevailing 7-6 (8-6), 2-6, 6-3 in an entertaining contest.
Azarenka, who won her second straight Australian Open last month, came into the final a prohibitive underdog despite having not lost a set this week.
Williams held a commanding 11-1 margin against Azarenka in all-time meetings, and had defeated her nine straight times. But that did the 15-time Grand Slam champion little good on this day, when Azarenka finally found the formula to end the losing streak.
The match showed a contrast for Williams, who racked up 51 winners but was undone by 48 unforced errors.
Azarenka played to Williams’ forehand early on and benefited from it, but the American started unleashing furious returns as the contest progressed that Azarenka, who covers as much court as anybody on the WTA Tour, could not run down.
Just when it looked like Williams had seized the momentum, after taking the second set to level the match 1-1, Azarenka jumped to a 3-0 lead in the final set and held serve the rest of the way for the win.
Azarenka, relying on her big forehand, came through at the crucial moments and retained her poise when Williams mounted a challenge.
“I just fought and gave it my all,” said Azarenka. “I knew I had to step it up to beat Serena. I was able to stay focused.”
Azarenka, the top seed here, was clearly elated after beating Williams for the first time in more than three years.
“It feels incredible,” she stated. “This tournament had such a strong field going into it and I’m really glad that at the end of the week, I’m the one who is holding the trophy.”
Williams, the second seed, was not pleased with her own performance.
“I made so many errors. It was just weird,” said Williams. “My serve, it was just one of those days.”
Azarenka had two break points in the opening game of the match, but was unable to capitalize on them.
Williams double faulted in the third game to give Azarenka the break and a 2-1 advantage.
After Azarenka went up 3-1 by taking her second straight service game at love, Williams changed rackets and proceeded to quickly hold serve.
She earned a break point in the sixth game, but Azarenka came toward the net and blasted a backhand for a winner and went on to hold.
Williams leveled at 4-4 with a break, as Azarenka appeared to tighten up and began to make some unforced errors, and then went up 5-4 on serve.
She held to make it 6-5 and then complained to the chair umpire that Azarenka was holding up her racket and distracting her while she tried to serve.
Azarenka jumped to a 5-2 lead in the first-set tiebreaker, but Williams responded with four straight points to go up 6-5 and earn a set point. Williams was aided by Azarenka’s double fault that had made it 5-5.
Azarenka didn’t flinch, however, staving off the set point and taking the final three points to claim the set when Williams made another unforced error.
Williams broke to go up 2-1 in the second set as she repeatedly connected on forehand winners.
With Williams leading 3-1, Azarenka staved off two break points before prevailing in a game that went to four deuces.
Azarenka double faulted on break point to hand Williams a 5-2 lead and the set soon slipped away.
In the third set, Azarenka broke Williams in the second game and then clinically closed it out.
With a 5-2 lead, Azarenka had a match point with Williams serving, but Williams held for 5-3.
Azarenka then completed the victory on serve in the next game when Williams sent a return long.
When asked why the result was different against Williams this time, Azarenka gave an all-encompassing answer.
“I just did everything better today,” she said.
“This whole week I don’t think I played my best tennis,” Williams lamented. “I was fighting every match.”
Williams, one of the greatest players in history, was gracious in defeat.
“I always respect Victoria. I think she is a really good player,” she said. “She is so consistent.”