NEW YORK—Once again, Serena Williams turned the conventional wisdom upside down as she won her fourth U.S. Open and 15th Grand Slam title in the best women’s final since who knows when (for the record, it was the first one that went three sets in 17 years). She survived a great scare—and a remarkably strong effort—by Victoria Azarenka, this year’s Australian Open champion, to win 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
But you know Serena. When other players shine and look strong (often, it’s either in the early, non-critical stages of a match, or when they’re playing catch-up, under no pressure) she can lose the plot a bit, maybe even get tight and forget to move her feet. But when it’s reckoning time and other players lose their nerve or feel an icy bead of perspiration rolling along their spines, Serena gets a burst of energy and confidence, as if the choice between perdition or salvation has suddenly popped up before her, and the choice is entirely up to her.
To wit: Azarenka served for the match at 5-4; she lost the match at 7-5.
Despite the high number of close games in this one, the themes were large and basic, the shifts of momentum slow to develop and difficult to realize. Serena dominated the first set, winning 73 percent of her first-serve points and an astonishing 75 percent of her second-serve points. She simply hit Azarenka off the court.
Serena played a loose game to open the second set with a break, and when Azarenka held, the momentum slowly began to shift. The top seed proved tougher in the fourth game of that set, surviving a break point to hold. Azarenka broke in the very next game on her third break point, when she boldly attacked the net and Serena ended up driving a forehand way beyond the baseline.
From that point on, Serena’s confidence seemed to wane and she began to play tight tennis. She moved poorly and was often caught flat-footed. Azarenka, meanwhile, sucked energy out of Serena’s torpor. She held onto that lone break to run out the second set.
Although Serena launched the third set with a hold, Azarenka fended her off in the next game despite facing two break points. She looked comfortable, dialed in, and capable of dealing with Serena’s power long enough to tease out or force an error. The women exchanged breaks in the third and fourth games, and it appeared that they had come to a standoff.
But at 3-3, Serena played a terrible game to be broken at love; now Azarenka, clearly in control since the middle of the second set, found herself serving for a 5-3 lead. She held on, despite mounting resistance. It looked like Serena was running out of gas as well as time, while Azarenka could all but taste the victory.
Serena came up with a strong hold, though, to force Azarenka to serve for it. And that was when Azarenka finally cracked and the momentum shifted for one last time. She fell behind 0-40 (thanks to two groundstroke errors), won a point, and then ended a rally with a forehand error to give Serena the break back, 5-5.
After a quick hold, Serena—by then a newly inspired and fully focused rival—put the pressure on Azarenka, and it paid off. The women haggled over two deuces, but then Azarenka made a forehand error off Serena’s service return to bring on match point, which Williams won with a sharp cross-court backhand return that forced a backhand error.
It was a high-quality match with some spectacular ball striking. Azarenka has shown a greater ability to compete with Serena than any other woman near the top of the game. She was entitled to feel, as she said during the presentation ceremony, that “I definitely leave her with no regrets.”
And Serena leaves here with a more convincing and still uncompleted claim to recognition as the greatest player, ever.