Williams Wins Out

  • Serena Williams reacts after a point against Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Serena Williams reacts after a point against Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Serena Williams checks the scoreboard between points during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    Serena Williams checks the scoreboard between points during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Serena Williams reacts after a point against Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
  • Serena Williams checks the scoreboard between points during the women's singles final of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

New York — After sailing into the U.S. Open’s final, Serena Williams finally slammed up against a worthy opponent Sunday, with the season’s final major title at stake.

Twice in the second set, the top-ranked Williams served for the victory. And each time, Victoria Azarenka, the world’s No. 2 player, battled back to force a tiebreak, then won it to extend the battle to a third set, capitalizing on Williams’s rare display of nerves and a capricious wind that bedeviled both players.

But Williams never lost her composure in a match packed with brilliant shots and courageous bounce-backs by both players. And in the end, 2 hours 24 minutes after the first ball was struck, Williams let all her pent-up emotion erupt upon clinching the 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1 victory.

Less than three weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, Williams jumped up and down like a manic toddler, raised a clenched fist and shouted, “Come on!” “Come on!” even though her wearying work day was over.

Both players were rewarded with a standing ovation and wild applause by the capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, former President Clinton among the throng of 24,500.

After regaining her poise, the triumphant Williams paid tribute to Azarenka, 24, whom she beat in last year’s U.S. Open final in three sets, as well, calling her “a great opponent” and “such a great fighter.”

“It was never over until match point,” Williams said.

Azarenka returned the praise as she fended off tears. “To be in the final against the best player in the world, who deserves to win, it’s incredible,” Azarenka said. “We showed our hearts. We gave it everything we got.”

With the victory, Williams claimed her fifth U.S. Open title and 17th major overall, putting her within one of the 18 held by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Steffi Graf holds the Open Era record, with 22 titles.

And Navratilova said this week that she fully expects Williams to surpass the number she shares with Evert.

She also collected a record payday for a tennis player — $3.6 million, which includes a $1 million bonus that only she, among women, was eligible for by virtue of dominating the North American hard-court circuit feeding into the U.S. Open.

The payout pushed Williams’s career earnings from prize money alone to more than $50 million. Rafael Nadal will be eligible for the same bonus in today’s men’s final against Novak Djokovic.

It was the first time in 10 years that the No. 1 and 2 women had met for the U.S. Open title. And it held the promise of a terrific slugfest.

Williams entered the match with a 66-4 record this season. But Azarenka, one of the few women’s players capable of handling Williams’ power, accounted for two of those defeats.

The match got underway on a gorgeous late-summer afternoon, but the wind was devilish for players at court level, gusting in unpredictable directions. It played havoc with ball tosses on serves, threw off timing and buffeted Williams’s flouncy dress around her waist, proving a constant annoyance.

Azarenka was less perturbed, hitting through the wind while Williams seems to lash out against it.

Serving a must-hold game at 4-5 in the opening set, Williams double-faulted, was then called for a foot-fault and got burned by a cagey drop-shot by Azarenka. But she held serve in the nearly 10-minute game, then blasted a forehand winner to get the critical break on the next game.

From that point on, Williams stopped fighting the wind, at least outwardly, and turned a study of absolute concentration, jaw clenched, as if a tsunami couldn’t jar her focus.

And she produced her best tennis to that point to claim the opening set, winning eight consecutive points.

Williams’s tear continued in the second set, breaking twice to take a 4-1 lead.

But Azarenka dug in and broke Williams three times in four service games—a stunning achievement against the game’s best server who had been broken just twice in the previous six matches combined.

Along the way, Williams served for the match twice - at 5-4, in which she was as three points from the title, and again at 6-5. Whether it was the wind, nerves or a combination, she over-hit too many shots. A tiebreak was needed to settle it.

That was a mini-drama of its own, with Williams striking for an early lead, then coughing up errors to hand the advantage back. Azarenka reached set point, but Williams replied with a monster serve. It took Azarenka two more tries, but she closed on her third set point to force a decisive third set. It was the first set Williams conceded all tournament.

The turning point came on a double-fault by Azarenka, not nearly a server of Williams’s caliber. And the 17-time Grand Slam champion didn’t look back.