NEW YORK -- Ordinarily, Victoria Azarenka's blue eyes sparkle. Sitting on her changeover chair in Arthur Ashe Stadium, they were dead as she stared vacantly into the yawning void.
The world's No. 5-ranked women's tennis player was thoroughly flogged by Serena Williams in a first set that took all of 28 minutes. It didn't seem possible that Azarenka, who said she came out "tight," could raise the level of her game high enough to compete. But, somehow, she did.
Saving four match points, Azarenka battled Williams into a second-set tiebreaker but could not sustain her momentum. Williams was a 6-1, 7-6 (5) winner in a match that, if it happened a week from now, might have been worthy of a championship final.
In the absence of Kim Clijsters, these are probably the best two hard-court players on the WTA tour, and their hard, flat exchanges in the second set were something to behold. It was unfortunate Williams' seeding (No. 28) -- and the USTA's decision to not make her a higher seed -- caused this early collision.
Was it unfair?
"No," said Azarenka. "It's the draw. I'm not going to sit here and cry about a tough draw. It's part of the game. If I want to be good, if I want to be a champion, I have to beat the best players."
Azarenka, asked what it was like to play Serena at her best, used the word "painful."
More impressive than Williams' power was her movement. She chased down Azarenka's lasers with impressive ease. Late in the second set, when she failed to catch up with a ball, Serena did a breathtaking, Clijsters-like full split that left spectators wincing.
"If that were me," said CBS analyst John McEnroe, "I'd be out for a year -- life."
"I think I played really well [in the first set]," Williams said. "I probably should have kept doing those things. If I was in a zone, it didn't last long.
"I definitely wasn't happy with the way I played today. I was a wee bit disappointed."
Frankly, this is getting out of hand.
Williams, after a nearly one-year-sabbatical, is 15-0 on hard courts this summer. By the looks of things, no one is going to give her much of a match at the U.S. Open. Clijsters never showed up, reigning Grand Slam champions Li Na and Petra Kvitova lost in the first round and sister Venus departed with a medical condition.
Who's going to beat her? No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki? No. 2 Vera Zvonareva? It's hard to imagine that happening.
Serena turns 30 later this month, but she seemed in vintage form Saturday, serving well and striking a wicked down-the-line backhand. A win here would give her U.S. Open titles in three decades -- 1999, 2002, 2008 and 2011. Martina Navratilova did that at Wimbledon, which underlines the magnitude of this likely accomplishment.
During her absence, women's tennis fell into general anarchy. But after returning earlier this summer, Serena has slowly worked herself into shape. She was gasping for breath in the two grass events, Eastbourne and Wimbledon, but she genuinely looks as good as ever now.
For the record, Serena has lost 10 games in three matches. Azarenka has won only three of 15 sets against her.
"She's playing at the higher level," Azarenka said. "It's everything. She has a complete package. The big serve maker her different from the other players. Mentally, she's one of the toughest players out there."
Said Serena, "The whole match was a semifinal. But at the end of the day it was the third round, and I'm into the round of 16, so I've got to keep doing it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.