NEW YORK – Serena Williams wielded her racket exquisitely for nearly two weeks at the U.S. Open. Until Sunday’s final.
This had been a fine-wine tournament for Williams, better than ever at age 31. But a flabbergasting wind and a fighting Victoria Azarenka summoned the Serena of old as the sun set Sunday.
She slammed her racket on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court during a second-set tiebreak after she failed to serve out the match. Twice.
She threw her racket at her chair after losing said tiebreak, being taken to a third set for the first time all tournament. The Ashe crowd – Bill Clinton, David Wells and Gladys Knight included – had to wonder. Was this the beginning of another Williams meltdown at the Open?
Williams’ complaints about the blustery conditions calmed, and she prevailed 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 in the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up in the women’s final in 10 years. Williams defended her U.S. Open title, lifting her fifth trophy here and 17th Grand Slam title overall at the scene of her breakthrough at age 17 in 1999.
“Vika’s such a great opponent, she’s such a great fighter,” Williams, after jumping for joy seven times in celebration, said in her on-court interview next to Azarenka, who cried after losing her second straight U.S. Open final to Williams in three sets. “It was never over until match point.”
Williams pocketed $3.6 million for winning the U.S. Open and the U.S. Open series, making her the fourth tennis player to garner $9 million in one season. The others are all men – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Williams also surpassed $50 million in career earnings.
"Half of that goes to my Uncle, Sam," Williams joked, claiming she's "never ever picked up a check."
She earned it. Williams played her most dominant Grand Slam ever before the final, winning 24 straight games at one point. A 6-1, 6-1 win over Azarenka would have broken Martina Navratilova’s record for fewest games lost in a single seven-round Slam (19, 1983 U.S. Open).
Wind prevented that, discombobulating her serve, hair and salmon-pink dress. Both players had to deal with it, but Azarenka was a statue compared to Williams.
“I can’t play in this wind,” Williams could be seen mouthing early on.
Williams appeared to gain control during a stretch where she won five straight games to take the first set and go up a break in the second.
But Azarenka, known for being close with Party Rocker Redfoo, upped her game to force a third set before ultimately wilting. Her serve let her down late in the 2 hour, 45 minute match, the longest women’s final since they began tracking time in 1980.
“We showed our hearts,” Azarenka said. “We gave it everything we got. Well deserved. Congratulations, Serena.”
Many say Williams, at 31, is better than ever. Credit salt-and-pepper bearded Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, who came on as her coach after Williams was stunned in the first round of the 2012 French Open.
She went on to win 2012 Wimbledon, London Olympic gold, the 2012 U.S. Open (also over Azarenka in three sets) and nine more titles this year.
“I play now for history,” Williams told Andy Roddick in an interview aired by Fox Sports 1 this week. “I also play now for fun.”
Let’s talk history. Williams now has 17 Grand Slam titles, matching her with Roger Federer for the first time since Federer won his seventh major at the 2006 Australian Open. Williams won six majors before Federer won his first.
The more talked-about comparisons will come against the most decorated major champions of all time, all women. Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (18) remain in Williams’ sights.
Williams, who turns 32 on Sept. 26, has racked up more major titles in her 30's (four) than any other woman. Playing like this, she will surely win more, but the exact quantity is in question as Father Time beckons. Just look at Federer, a month older than Williams, who bowed out in the fourth round last week. Williams is the oldest player in the WTA top 50.
"I have never felt better," she said. "I haven't felt like this in a number of years. I'm excited about the possibilities.
Williams’ dominance has long been displayed on tour, but her decency shined the last two weeks at an arena where she’s been known to melt down (2009 foot fault, 2011 “Come on!” hindrance). Williams repeatedly thanked and encouraged a New York crowd previously hardened by those two incidents.
A U.S. Open TV commercial played throughout the tournament, accompanied by the Frank Sinatra song, “Can I Steal A Little Love?” After her win Sunday, Williams was engulfed by it at the center of Ashe as she raised her arms and yelled tennis’ rallying cry “Come on!”
“I definitely felt the love,” Williams said. “It’s an honor to play in New York.”
It was an honor to witness her conduct as much as her play.
She wore a business-like gray blazer before matches. After them, she allowed her defeated opponents to shake the chair umpire’s hand first, something she never does. That was the biggest upset of the Open (sorry, Victoria Duval).
She even apologized to a fan for being unable to reach their oversized tennis ball while signing autographs on the court a few minutes after lifting the trophy.
And this trophy meant a lot. Williams is now 67-4 in 2013, but a loss Sunday would have meant she won only one major. It would have been a failure of a season, by her standards, after becoming the oldest No. 1 in WTA history in February.
"I felt almost disappointed with my year (before the U.S. Open)," she said. "Yeah, I won the French Open, but I wasn't happy with my performances in the other two Slams (not making it past the quarterfinals)."
Azarenka, the 24-year-old Belarusian, was bidding for her second major this year and a third win over Williams after she came into the year 1-11 in their “rivalry.” This was a potential table-turning match.
"From the first point the tension, the battle, the determination, it was...like boiling the water," said Azarenka, who was convinced to root for Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic in Monday's final because Nadal "was practicing with his shirt off."
Even more, Williams is setting a magnificent example for U.S. women’s tennis, which continues to pull away from a depleted crop of American men. There are 10 U.S. women in the WTA top 100, more than any other nation, including six born in the 1990s.
Nobody played Williams closer before the final than No. 15 seed Sloane Stephens. At 20 years old, Stephens is the youngest woman in the top 20 and one of only three to beat Williams this year. Stephens had called out Williams in a May magazine article, but Williams handled their first match since with complete class last Sunday.
“The reign continues,” was play-by-play man Bill Macatee’s championship line on CBS.
Serena is the Queen of New York, in more ways than one.