Serena snaps to it, holds off Azarenka

NEW YORK -- The best of them don't always do it on their best days. They are champions because they win when their games aren't always there, when the wind is annoying and their skirts are flying and, worse, when it plays havoc with their stroke and their serve and their nerves.

The finest among them prevail when they look across the net and see someone as tough as they are, someone capable of wearing them down and making them look bad but ultimately bring out their best.

AP Photo/David Goldman

It was far from easy, but Serena Williams was able to hoist her fifth US Open championship trophy.

Serena Williams is the greatest because of days like Sunday, when her body language was flagging, opportunities were squandered and she had to snap herself out of it.

She is the US Open champion because she finally did, prevailing over No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-1 in the longest women's championship (2 hours, 45 minutes) since 1980, when they began keeping track of such things.

Ultimately, Williams won her second consecutive US Open title, her second major of the year and 17th Grand Slam championship by overcoming the most difficult of challengers, herself.

"I just pulled myself together and just started playing tennis that I know I can play," Williams said.

"There's one word," Azarenka said. "She's a champion and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it's like a clash. That's what happens out there, those battles.

"And in the important moments, it is who is more brave, who is more consistent, or who takes more risk. And with somebody like Serena, you got to take risk. You can never play safe, because she will do that."

Up a set and leading 4-1 in the second after a stretch in which she appeared to take command by winning seven of eight games, Williams failed on two opportunities to serve for the championship at 5-4 and at 6-5, then lost a tight tiebreaker.

Azarenka obviously had plenty to do with it, breaking Williams three times in that second set and controlling her nerves, particularly early on in dealing with the wind while Williams struggled, and in pulling out a pressure-packed tiebreaker to stay in the match.

At 24 and nearly eight years younger than Williams, who will turn 32 on Sept. 26, Azarenka will surely improve with experience. A win Sunday would have been Azarenka's third in her past four matches against Williams and her second Grand Slam title of the year, provoking a solid argument for Player of the Year honors.

But her ability to stand in with one of, if not the greatest, women's players ever as no one else on tour can consistently do right now, is hopeful at least for Azarenka, if not the game. She did not wilt in the third set as much as concede to a stronger, more experienced player.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Victoria Azarenka was understandably disappointed after losing in three sets to Serena Williams.

"There was no letdown," Azarenka said. "I think there was a moment in the third set that the momentum changed a little bit, and I kind of felt like I lost that momentum. But it [didn't] happen because Serena didn't do something. It didn't happen just because I was, you know, out of focus or something. She really made it happen. In that particular moment, she was tougher today. She was more consistent, and she deserved to win.

"There are things I could have [done] better. But I gave my heart. I fought as hard as I could. That's what is important for me, that I lost to a great champion, but I'm still going to have my head up."

Sunday was just what women's tennis needed after a flat Wimbledon final, Maria Sharapova's sudden withdrawal here and Williams' easy march to the final that included a quarterfinal bagel and a first-set shutout against No. 5 seed Li Na in the semis.

In addition, Azarenka had been clunking along these past two weeks. And with American Sloane Stephens (against an injured Williams at the Australian quarters) and Sabine Lisicki (fourth round of Wimbledon), the only other players to have beaten Williams this year, it was important that Azarenka lifted her play against her once again. It was important that this was high drama and, for most of the time, good tennis.

"It was raising from the first point, the tension, the battle, the determination," Azarenka said. "It was raising kind of like boiling the water or something. It felt from every point the level [was rising]. It was a great match."

This was something of a reversal of last year's Open final, in which Azarenka, who was two points from winning, was the one who squandered key opportunities, and yet it raises expectations for every future meeting of the two and the bigger the stage, the better.

"I'm just going to take the best out of what happened today, because there are a lot of positive things. What's negative is the result," Azarenka said. "To see how much you rise to the occasion compared to the other matches, I think it's pretty remarkable. And the challenge that is in front of me is only going to make me more motivated.

"I think we showed today that the women's game is really, really competitive."

But ultimately, this tournament is about what they always are, and that's the last competitor standing, in this case a woman who tied Steffi Graf on Sunday with her fifth US Open title and is now just one short of Chris Evert's record six; and is also one major shy of tying Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 (sixth on the all-time list).

The nerves, said Williams, who won her first Grand Slam title here at 17, may have been part of that.

"You know, when you're always trying to write history -- or join history, in my case -- maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should," she said. "I also think it's kind of cool because it means that it means a lot to you. It means a lot to me, this trophy and every single trophy that I have. It makes me feel that I'm still fighting just to be a part of this fabulous sport."

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