NEW YORK – Fussing with her skirt and flubbing her shots, Serena Williams was troubled in the U.S. Open final by the swirling breeze and the strong play of Victoria Azarenka.
After one early miss, Williams declared, “I can’t play in this wind.” After blowing a big lead and dropping the second set, Williams chucked her racket toward the sideline, and it bounced back onto the court.
In the end, Williams pulled herself together, as she usually does when it matters the most. Facing her only test of the past two weeks, the No. 1-seeded Williams overcame No. 2 Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 on Sunday for a fifth championship at Flushing Meadows and second in a row.
Williams raised her Grand Slam singles title count to 17, the sixth-most in history and one shy of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Williams collected a $3.6 million prize, including a $1 million bonus for producing the best results during the North American summer hard-court circuit leading up to the U.S. Open.
“She’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it’s like a clash,” Azarenka said, pounding her fists together.
Helped by nine aces, one at 126 mph, Williams improved to 67-4 with a career-high nine titles in 2013. Since a first-round exit at the 2012 French Open, she is 98-5 with 14 titles, winning four of the past six Grand Slam tournaments.
“Vika’s such a great opponent, such a great fighter,” said Williams, who turns 32 on Sept. 26, “and that’s why she’s been able to win multiple Grand Slams. That’s why it was never over until match point.”
Yes, this one did not come easily, even though it appeared to be nearly over when Williams went ahead by two breaks at 4-1 in the second set. Williams served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5 – only to have the gutsy Azarenka break each time.
Still, Williams regrouped and regained control.
“In the third set, Serena really found a way to calm down and restart from zero and quickly erase what happened,” said Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
This was a rematch of last year’s final, also won by Williams in three sets, and two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka provided another challenge with her big swings off both wings.
“It is a tough loss, but to be in the final and play against the best player – who deserves to win today – it’s incredible,” said Azarenka, who is from Belarus. “I gave it all today. We showed our hearts. We fought hard.”
Four times, Azarenka was only two points from taking the opening set. At one such moment, with Williams serving at deuce after a double-fault, she was called for a foot fault, erasing what would have been a 121 mph ace. There was another foot-fault call in the second set, too. They brought back memories of the American’s loss to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 semifinals, when Williams was docked a point, and later fined, for a tirade against a line judge over a foot-fault call.
There was no such outburst directed at officials this time, although there was that racket toss. After the call in the match’s 10th game, Williams simply put a hand to her face, composed herself, and won the point with a down-the-line backhand she celebrated with a fist pump, some foot stomping and a yell of “Come on!”
Williams wound up holding there with a 104-mph ace, part of what seemed to be a match-altering stretch. She won five consecutive games and 16 of 18 points to take the first set and go up a break in the second.
“You could see she clicked,” Mouratoglou said. “She realized she was not aggressive enough. She was letting Vika dictate too much, and all of a sudden, things completely changed.”
Well, at least for a while.
Williams’ lead grew to 4-1 in the second set, before Azarenka made things competitive again.
But she simply could not keep pace with Williams, who eventually put aside her issues to finish with a 36-17 edge in winners.
Most U.S. Open wins
Molla Bjurstedt Mallory 8
Helen Willis Moody 7
Chris Evert 6
Margaret Court 5
Steffi Graf 5
Serena Williams 5
Most major wins
Margaret Court 24
Steffi Graf 22
Helen Willis Moody 19
Chris Evert 18
Martina Navratilova 18
Serena Williams 17
Billie Jean King 12