In the wake of their semifinal victories on Friday, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka found themselves in a long rally of compliments.
Williams, the world's No. 1 player, and Azarenka, the No. 2, can now be said to have the fiercest rivalry in the women's game, and one that's strictly between the lines. It might be a stretch to call them friends, but the 31-year-old Williams and the 24-year-old Azarenka clearly have mutual respect, both as players and as people.
"That's the great part about it. We completely get along, and once the match is on we are completely opponents," Williams said. "That's what it's about. When the match is over, we completely get along. We leave everything on the court, play as hard as we can, almost as if we've never met each other in our lives."
"We're experienced enough, especially Serena, to know that on court is business," Azarenka said. "Off court, is you're regular people that just respect each other for their work or for who they are. That's it."
They will meet Sunday for the 16th time in their careers, with the U.S. Open title on the line. It will be the second straight year they will meet in this final with Williams prevailing in three sets last year. Williams holds a 12-3 advantage, but Azarenka has won two of three matchups this year, both on hardcourt and both for titles. Azarenka has lost once this season in 32 matches on hardcourt. Each of them has a Grand Slam this season, Williams at the French Open and Azarenka at the Australian.
Ask to describe, on a "serious tennis basis," the changes in her game from last year, Azarenka said: "Let's stay with the serious stuff and then we'll go crazy. There are aspects that got better physically. Mentally I felt like it was a great turning point for me on some level for my career. I feel like I'm a better player. I'm a more complete player."
For that, she has to give Williams credit.
"When you play against Serena, you have to play your best because she makes me play my best," Azarenka said. "I think I kind of do the same way to her. I think we kind of raise each other's level all the time, take each other to the limit."
A statement that is seconded by Williams.
"I definitely feel like when she plays me, she plays her best, by far," Williams said. "I've seen her play other players, and when I play her I'm playing a totally different player. Obviously she brings her best game."
Williams will be seeking her fifth Open title and 17th Grand Slam. As winner of the U.S. Open Series this summer, she's eligible for a $1-million bonus if she wins the title. With $2.6 million to the winner, that would be a $3.6-million payday. But as the women's leading money winner of all time with more than $47 million, Williams want the trophy more than the check.
"I'm trying not to think of it so much. Money has never been my motivation with tennis," said Williams, who with sister Venus grew up on the well-worn public courts of Compton, Calif. "I have always just played for the Grand Slams."
Azarenka grew up in modest circumstances in Minsk, Belarus. They have both had to fight for everything they have. That fight will be on display Sunday.
"You've got to fight," Azarenka said. "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 and amazing player. She's the greatest of all time."