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Saturday, May 12, 2012
Stats say Serena should stop Azarenka


Big personalities tend to make us talk about big issues, and so it is with Serena Williams. She'll be playing Victoria Azarenka on the blue clay in the final of the Madrid combined event. Thus, when pundits and fans evaluate Serena's chances, they'll probably paint the portrait in broad strokes, extolling the intangible virtues that make Williams the most formidable WTA competitor since Monica Seles.

But you know the old saying: Statistics don't lie. And though Serena's ranking among her peers in, say, the "break-points saved" category isn't very sexy, it's a more valuable handicapping tool than, say, a paean to her determination.

Looked at that way, it's pretty clear from the stats that WTA No. 9 Williams has a significant advantage over No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. So let's take it stat-by-stat.

Aces: Williams leads 41-20, including the semifinal. Look at it this way: Based on this stat, Williams is twice as likely to fend off a break point with an ace than is Azarenka. And that doesn't even account for those de facto aces called service winners.

First-serve conversion percentage: Going into the semis Azarenka had a solid 66 percent, but made just 56 percent in her last win, over Agnieszka Radwanska. Williams went into the semis at 63 percent and made 60 percent against Lucie Hradecka. Azarenka holds a slight edge, but given how much better Williams's serve is, that isn't enough to make an appreciable difference.

First-serve points won: Going into the semis, Williams successfully finished 82 percent, while Azarenka was fourth among the semifinalists in this department, nine percentage points lower (73 percent) below Williams. It's another comment on the efficiency of each finalist's serve. Azarenka did slightly better in her semi (79 percent) -- but then she outright owns Radwanska.

Second-serve points won: You might think Azarenka would be strong in this category, because serving power isn't really a factor. Yet going into the semis, Serena held a significant lead over Vika, 53 to 41 percent. Williams won a mind-boggling 75 percent of her second serve points against Hradecka, while Azarenka won just 35 percent against Radwanska -- an interesting tribute to what Radwanska can do if she's allowed control.

Service games won: Serena has been the best at the tournament, winning 91 percent of her service games (41 of 45), while Azarenka won 43 of the 54 games she served for a percentage of 79.6.

Break points saved: Williams is 7-of-11 going into the final (64 percent), while Azarenka is 11-of-18 (61 percent). Serena didn't face a break point against Hradecka, while Radwanska got seven looks against Vika, but converted only three.

Points won against first serve: Williams and Azarenka were two and three, respectively, behind Radwanska going into the semis. But while Serena, at 42 percent, trailed Radwanska by just one percentage point, Azarenka was way behind at 30 percent. Granted, her final number will improve slightly when you factor in her 43 percent success rate against Radwanska's serve, but that shot is also one of the WTA No. 4 player's weaknesses.

Points won against second serve: Williams and Azarenka ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, after the quarterfinals, but again Williams had a significant lead: 67 to 60 percent.

Return games won: Another big lead for Williams here. Through the semifinals, she won nearly half the return games she played, 23 of 47, or 48.9 percent. Azarenka is 20-of-54, or 37 percent.

Break points converted: Surprisingly, Hradecka was on fire, leading the entire field right up through semis with a 75 percent conversion rate (12-of-16). Williams and Azarenka enter the final in something like a dead heat. Each woman broke serve 20 times; Azarenka had 45 opportunities, one fewer than Williams. Call this one even.

Conclusions? Serena is statistically superior in almost every department -- and often by a large margin in a game in which the difference in total points one is often in the single digits. Williams' superiority in both the serve and return game is striking. Granted, she may win fewer of those second-serve points against as consistent and dangerous a rally player as Azarenka, but unless the reigning No. 1 can lure Williams into long rallies and have a much better day at the service notch, Serena is in with a great shot.

Sure it's about heart, grit and will when it comes to Serena Williams. But it's also about numbers and a lethal if bland statistical superiority.