Serena caps endless summer with Open title

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- Before even a point was played, Victoria Azarenka wore the look of an underdog.

Walking through the hallways inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, from players' lounge to locker room and back, Azarenka had the hood of her gray Nike sweatshirt pulled low, casting a shadow across her eyes.

She looked like a fresh-faced boxer prepping to take on the reigning world champ, which wasn't much different than the actual dynamic when you consider how Azarenka's opponent, Serena Williams, steamrolled her first six opponents to reach this U.S. Open final. Entering Sunday's match, Williams had lost only 19 games (Azarenka dropped 33), and no sets (Azarenka lost two).

When Williams arrived at the locker room approximately 20 minutes before the first serve, she was wearing a pair of navy and yellow Beats headphones and the look of a conqueror.

And that's how this thing started, too -- with Williams conquering. Just as most predicted, it seemed that time was the only thing standing between Williams and the 15th Grand Slam title of her career.

Williams won the first set 6-2 in 34 minutes and, considering this tournament had not seen a women's final go three sets since 1995, most in attendance probably believed it was going to be an early evening in Queens.

Then Azarenka, the world No. 1 -- but who would have known it -- decided she wasn't following that script.

"I feel like when the task is more difficult for me, it's more exciting," Azarenka said afterward. "You know, that fear, adrenaline is coming, something that you never experienced before, you have to stand tall and just face it. So I feel like this brings the best out of me, those conditions, the motivation that I have to produce my absolute best."

The 23-year-old from Belarus took advantage of every Williams error -- there were 15 in the second set and 45 by night's end -- and won the second set. Then Azarenka pushed the third set to the brink of a tiebreak before losing this U.S. Open final 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.

It says a lot about Williams' recent dominance that it shocked everyone that Azarenka, who won the Australian Open earlier this year and is technically the world's best player, even made it a match at all. Azarenka led the third set 5-3 and seemed like an underdog about to surprise a city. Then Williams, who ran hot and cold all night, stopped smacking the ball into the net and started smacking it all over the court.

"I just thought if I could force another game," Williams said. "And obviously I never give up. I never, never quit because I've come back so many times in so many matches. I wasn't too nervous, I just thought, 'If I can just get to the next game.' It was always the next game."

No one in the world can beat Williams right now except herself -- and in the final few games Sunday, Williams didn't let that happen.

"Serena produced some amazing tennis," Azarenka said. "I feel like I could have done a little bit better, but there was nothing that I did absolutely wrong."

When Azarenka's final forehand soared past the baseline, she walked despondently to her chair as Williams raised her arms in victory and dropped to the hard court.

The American had been, unquestionably, the best player during this fortnight, and so it seemed only fitting that, when all was said and done, Williams was crowned champion. She hopped up and down in excitement while looking over at her player's box, which was filled with friends and family, including her sister, Venus.

At 30, Williams is playing some of the best tennis of her career. She won Wimbledon in July and then, a few weeks later, the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Sunday's victory delivered Williams the fourth U.S. Open title of her career (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012) and also pushed her on-court earnings past $40 million, making her the first women's player in history to do so.

As far as Azarenka is concerned, Williams is the greatest of all time. "She took the game to the next level," said the runner-up.

The crowd seemed well aware of the history Williams was making. Not a break in play passed without someone from the stands, and usually the rafters, shrieking encouragement to Williams.

This was an enthusiastic crowd that lifted Williams during the down moments and exploded when the victory was finally hers -- when the U.S. Open title, despite the full-hearted effort of a No. 1-ranked underdog, belonged again to Serena Williams.

"Obviously I wanted to win easy," Williams said. "But at the same time, this is more exciting to win because you don't know what's coming, you don't know what to expect. And then you get it."

With the U.S. Open trophy next to her on the podium, Williams continued her thought.

"Number 15 now? I'm so excited, and to do it here. To come from the gold medal to win the U.S. Open -- it's unforgettable."