No woman has ruled any tennis tournament longer than Serena Williams who, 14 years after she won her first slam title in New York as an ebullient teenager, took delivery of her fifth US Open championship as a seasoned champion by beating the breeze, her nerves and Victoria Azarenka in three sets.
Williams served for the match twice in the second set and once in the third, and gave the loser proper credit for making it a gripping, wind-racked, error-strewn final.
From a set and 1-4 down in wind that would have knocked Nelson off his poop deck, Azarenka forced a tie-break then a third session. After two hours and 45 minutes, Williams was as relieved as she was elated in celebrating a 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-1 victory.
With the former president Bill Clinton looking on, she said: “I definitely felt the love. It’s an honour to play in New York. Victoria you played an unbelievable match. What a great person.”
Azarenka said: “It is a tough loss but to play in the final against the best player in the world is unbelievable.”
Williams, with the shorter swing, initially appeared equipped to handle the gusts more easily than Azarenka, who put a forehand long to give the American three break points at the start of the match; the winner Williams put past her opponent to break was fully loaded, giving the breeze no say. However, with the wind at her back after the changeover, she suffered the same difficulties as Azarenka and also hit long to drop serve. She looked to her team at the end of the game and mouthed, “I can’t play in this wind.” From that point on, angst crowded out fluency on both sides of the net.
On the first deuce point of the match in the 10th game, Williams, serving to stay in the set, foot-faulted — and that, infamously, was the spark that blew the keg here on matchpoint in the 2009 final against Kim Clijsters when she launched a tirade at one of the officials. It was Azarenka who had cause to blow up this time, after a poor line call against her that might have afforded her a window to break.
Serena, however, is now closer to the personality that her name suggests, and, channelling her frustration well, she aced up the middle to hold for 5-5, then broke immediately.
As the champion finally hit a rhythm, the sentiment swung more obviously her way and she was properly acclaimed after winning eight points in a row to take the set in just under an hour. Why she does not engender greater warmth at her home tournament, especially when struggling in difficult conditions, is a mystery.
It seems a long time since Williams went out in the first round at Wimbledon, the sort of shock that inspires talk of decline or at least problems but, rising 32, she has proved since that it was an aberration and has looked unbeatable — except by Azarenka, who has won two of their three matches this year, the latest in Cincinnati last month.
This, though, was a level up from that warm-up and Williams, who broke early in the second, had fire in her eyes. Only Jennifer Capriati in the 2004 quarters, among 66 opponents, has beaten her here after she has won the first set.
But Azarenka was far from finished, even as Williams all but had her hands on the prize at 4-1 up. With a gutsy, steady game, she capitalised on her opponent’s growing uncertainty.
Williams botched her first attempt to wind it all up, then looked near tears as she thrashed her racket after a gust had wrecked a forehand from behind the baseline, before she protected the first of two set points with a booming serve. Azarenka gave her the second, netting a backhand under pressure, but, receiving again, forced a third set when Williams hit long.
The third was an anti-climax, almost, as Azarenka could not resist the power of Williams’ serve or ground strokes that now more regularly sliced the eddying breeze.
It was a sad finish for Azarenka, who had fought so hard to stay in a match she might have lost an hour earlier, and her head dropped as she pushed her final forehand long. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013