"I was dreaming when I wrote this," Serena Williams sang along with the Prince song on the loudspeakers inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. She had the U.S. Open winner's trophy high over her head, and her fourth title at Flushing Meadows in her pocket.
The song was appropriate not just for that evening - it was a dream comeback win for Serena - but for her entire summer. Wimbledon champ, Olympic gold medalist two times over, and now, with a trademark rise from the ashes against Victoria Azarenka, a 15th Grand Slam title, in New York. She couldn't have written a better script than that.
By the way she talked and shrieked and leapt at the end, Serena really was surprised that she pulled this one out. As she should have been - her game had fallen off for most of the last two sets, while Vika had steadily grown more confident that she belonged on the same court with her. But Azarenka wasn't quite confident enough to win in the end. It's a shame that Azarenka faded so thoroughly; this match, and this women's season, deserved a deciding tiebreaker.
Despite that slight anti-climax, Williams's resourceful 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 win was still the first three-set U.S. Open women's final since Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles in 1995. It was also, in my estimation, the sixth most memorable match of 2012, and the best women's Grand Slam final since her sister Venus beat Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon in 2005, 9-7 in the third. Both times, there was a lot of jumping.
Serena was as knife-sharp as the yellow streak through her outfit to start. In one early rally, the woman commentator in this broadcast notes how Williams hits one shot leaning forward, the next leaning backward, but still pulls off a winner in the end. It's true: It's hard to think of many players who are as good as Serena when they're off-balance. Whatever else her body may be doing, her contact point is solid and steady.
Azarenka made great strides in almost all aspects of her game in 2012, but you can see here that the second serve remains a liability. She doesn't get much action, whether of the slice or the kick variety, on the ball, and it ends up right in Serena's strike zone. It would probably take a change in her motion to improve this stroke; not easy, but it has been done by others.
Watch the acceleration that Serena gets when they replay her backhand return winner from the deuce court at 5-2 - that's some serious whip. Then see how hard it is for Azarenka, who hits with power, to get the ball past her. Vika hit just two winners to Serena's 16 in the first set; more telling, Azarenka won the second set 6-2 despite hitting just three winners to Serena's nine. Even through the third, when Azarenka was at her best and in the lead, most of the points shown in this clip are of Serena's winning shots.
Power and speed, offense and defense, in equal measures: This is what the Williams sisters brought to women's tennis, and what, nearly 15 years later, no woman has matched.
We miss one moment of unintentional comedy in this one: Serena being called for a foot-fault, and giving the smiling the line judge the stink eye after she wins the point anyway. I was sitting on the baseline for that serve, and it was the right call. I thought for a second as her foot touched down on the line that the judge wasn't going to call it - from behind, he looked he might be asleep - but his hand eventually went up. It's easy to see how Serena can commit this infraction; her front foot moves all over the place from serve to serve. What I don't understand is why, when it's called, she'll ask the umpire which foot was the culprit. She never crosses her back one over her front.
After a series of long games to start the third set, Vika weathers all of Serena's storms and pulls ahead. From this clip, I would have thought Azarenka would have folded when she went down 2-3, but she didn't. Serena, despite her best efforts at pumping herself up, was off, and it looked like she was going to stay off.
We don't see the key point here. Azarenka is up 5-3, 15-30 on Serena's serve, when she puts a forehand into the net. You could feel a shift with that point. Vika, it turned out, had gone as far as she could go and wasn't ready to close. After that miss, Serena could sense it. As she did in the Wimbledon final against Agnieszka Radwanska, and as she didn't do against Virginie Razzano in Paris, Williams dialed her game back a bit and played with more margin over the last four games. You can see the result in the rally where she holds for 4-5; she works the point and waits to pull the trigger on her backhand. As commentator Al Trautwig says after one of her late winners: "She made sure."
From there, Vika's shots begin to find the tape; just a little tension in the arm made the difference. As I said, this one deserved a breaker to end it, and it's too bad Azarenka finished an otherwise excellent performance by losing four straight games. Serena, who had mostly been silent during this match, lets out a grunt on her return at match point. She knows how to close.
This was a fitting end to what most agree was the best WTA season in years. We had the No. 1 player vs. the Player of the Year, and they went down to the wire. Azarenka, not a beloved No. 1 thus far, made a lot of new fans with her post-match speech. The evening's best moment might have been Serena stroking her arm to console Vika as she spoke.
Serena won her first Open, at age 17, in 1999. In the spirit of Prince, the 31-year-old is still winning the way she did back then. Her party, obviously, was meant to last.
Steve Tignor's Top 10 Matches of 2012:
No. 6: Winning Like It's 1999: Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka
No. 7: Fireworks: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer
No. 8: Sturm and Drang: Angelique Kerber d. Sabine Lisicki
No. 9: Sculpting a Strange Masterpiece: Bernard Tomic d. Alexandr Dolgopolov
No. 10: Stunner in Paris: Virginie Razzano d. Serena Williams