Serena and Vika's mutual respect society
NEW YORK - The idea that Serena Williams and her US Open finals opponent Victoria Azarenka are good friends is amusing to Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
"Of course they have a good relationship, but it's difficult to have real friends," he said this week. "So, they're not real friends, but they appreciate each other, they're joking; they are friends, but as much as they can be because they're competing at the highest level.
"But they wouldn't go to dinner together, for example."
They would, however, joke about performing a karaoke duet at Madison Square Garden, as they did six months ago at an exhibition match in New York.
"I'm studying the piano chorus, and she's going to sing," Azarenka explained.
And they would speak at length about a relationship that sure seems genuine, as they did last month in Cincinnati and again this week in New York.
Both point out that, however they define it, it is unusual for the two top-ranked women -- or men, for that matter -- to have a close relationship. Mouratoglou said you would not even see the best women's players practice together.
"I've never seen top players in the women's game hitting with each other," he said. "In men's always, in women's, never."
Other than Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, whose friendship was admittedly up and down when they played, and Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who said they couldn't stand each other when they were younger but grew to respect each other, the road is littered more with rivals who barely tolerated each other.
It is not exactly a secret, for example, that Williams and third-ranked Maria Sharapova are not exactly buddies. But Serena and Vika?
Azarenka said last month that the two "just kind of clicked" and that part of it is a common attitude about their respective games.
"I think, on court, [we're] just fighters out there," she said. "And off court, Serena is a great person. I like her a lot. We get along. We have a good laugh. We're talking after the match. So it's no problem. ... And I think it's exciting for the fans to see not only the good fight on the court but a good relationship off court, as well."
At the same tournament in Cincinnati, Williams called Azarenka "an animal on the court, and I'm the same exact way.
"I'm a big Victoria fan," she said. "Whenever I'm not at a tournament, I root for her. For me, I think she's just the ultimate competitor on the court and just really nice. She leaves everything on the court and nothing personal. And everything off the court, she's just so, so professional and so nice. I really get along with her. She's just a great person."
After Azarenka's three-set victory and during the trophy ceremony, it was noted that the two were joking with one another.
"Once the match was over," Williams explained, "we just kind of went into our regular relationship, which is just cool. 'What's up, girl? How are you doing?' That kind of thing. She's just a really cool person."
Williams had no problem admitting that befriending a rival was a new thing for her but said that her inspiration came from a specific source.
"It's nice, it's different," she said. "I was watching Martina Navratilova in the ceremony at Wimbledon and Chris Evert, sitting by each other, and to see the relationship, it was really cool to see how they were laughing and they just were friends. And Chris even made a statement how Martina was her friend longer than any of her husbands.
"It was really funny, and I just thought, that's so fun. I thought it was a great relationship how they said they had their ups and downs in their relationship but they were always the last two in the locker room at the end of the week.
"So it's happening more and more with me and Vika being the last two at the end of the week."
Both insist it is not a problem to put their friendship aside when they play.
"That's the great part about it," Williams said Friday. "We completely get along, and, once the match is on, we are completely opponents. That's what it's about. ... We leave everything on the court, play as hard as we can, almost as if we've never met each other in our lives."
Azarenka agreed, saying their relationship does not affect their on-court intensity.
"We're experienced enough, especially Serena," she said, "to know that on court is business; off court is you're regular people that just respect each other for their work or for who they are. That's it."