Serena wrestles way to more history

NEW YORK -- She was still a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday when, with a cascade of white beads in her hair, she announced herself to the world right here in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Serena Williams beat a 16-year-old Belgian named Kim Clijsters in the third round, then took down three Grand Slam champions -- Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis -- on the way to her first major singles title.

That was, impossibly, 14 years ago.

The former champs have all been retired for some time, and that ascendant teenager, who would win four Grand Slam titles, including three US Opens, actually retired twice.

Williams, who at 31 is the oldest woman ever to be ranked No. 1, is not merely still standing. After a nearly fatal second-set hiccup, she's sprinting full stride into women's tennis history.

Fourteen years after that breakthrough win, Serena overcame some seriously gusty conditions -- on the court and in her mind -- to defeat No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 and defend her US Open title. It's the longest span for a women's champion at the same Grand Slam, although Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open an amazing 19 years apart.

After she won, they played Prince's "Party like it's 1999."

"Gosh, it was amazing winning at 17," Williams said. "It was just a great feeling. The difference is it hasn't settled in yet. I think because I was up so much in the second, and I didn't quite take my opportunities.

"So when I was 17 I remember I took my opportunity right then and there, and I made some shots and I wasn't making as many errors.

"Being older, it's always awesome and such a great honor, because I don't know if I'll ever win another Grand Slam."

It didn't come without nerves -- lots of them. Serena served twice for the title in the second set and ultimately lost the tiebreaker. But she rallied with an astonishing force to win her fifth US Open championship in a superb match that required 2 hours, 45 minutes -- the longest championship match since 1980, when they started keeping track of these things.

"Well, Vika's such a great fighter, that's why she's won multiple Grand Slams," Serena said in her on-court interview. "That's why it's never over until match point."

Like a small child, Serena hyperactively jumped for joy after she won and unleashed a massive "Come on!" Azarenka, who held it together during the handshake, could not hold back the tears when she fell back in her changeover chair.

Just when it seemed this delicious matchup was starting to tilt away from Serena, she wrestled it back under her control.

For if Azarenka had managed to win the first set -- and she was within two points on two occasions -- this might have ended differently. Azarenka, who lost 11 of her first 12 career matches against Williams, would have been in line to take three of the past four, all this year.

Instead, Serena won two of their four matches this year, and their rivalry, going forward, promises to continue to be the WTA's best. Together, they have now won six of the past eight majors.

But Serena has won all eight of their matches in Grand Slam play. That is unsurpassed dominance over the second-best player in the game, although the gap is clearly closing.

Here is how Serena is an even better player today than she was a few years ago: Remember that horrific meltdown against the line judge when she called a foot fault during the 2009 semifinal against Clijsters? There was a moment in the pivotal first set when it looked like it might happen again.

Serving at 4-5 in the critical-mass game, Serena had just hit a serve 121 miles per hour when a foot fault was called, negating an ace. Williams did not flinch this time. She stepped to the line, seemingly composed but perhaps privately breathing fire, and won the point with a crushing backhand winner. That she won the last eight points of the set was probably not a coincidence.

The match, played in extremely breezy conditions, did not begin well for Azarenka, which was hardly a surprise. Serena won four of the five points on Azarenka's serve -- her powerful backhand cross-court winner gave her an early lead. Still, Vika didn't let it become a psychological advantage.

Azarenka, who had her serve broken five times in her semifinals victory over Flavia Pennetta, has grown accustomed to being forced to balance those losses. She immediately broke Serena's first service game and leveled the match.

Williams, who seemed more nervous than Azarenka, mouthed to her box early on, "I can't play in this wind." Would it turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

They both grew more accustomed to the conditions as the match progressed and held serve with varying degrees of forcefulness. And then, with Azarenka serving at 5-all, Serena got a sniff. Two errors from Azarenka let Serena back into the game, at deuce. After a huge forehand cross-court winner, Serena hit a terrific backhand service return that was so deep Azarenka had to hit a half-volley just to get a racket on it. Serena held serve for the set, finishing with a flourish.

The second set was one-sided until Serena, up two breaks of serve, tightened up and lost back-to-back services to see the set leveled at 5-all. She dropped two service games over the first six matches, but Azarenka broke her three times. And then Serena broke her back. And then Azarenka broke her for the fourth time to force a tiebreaker, which she won when Serena's windblown backhand sailed long.

Even before that 1999 US Open began, Serena said she knew she was going to win it.

"I told myself I was going to win, and I felt it," she said before this tournament. "I have these weird feelings all the time, and I just felt I was going to win this tournament. I wasn't really surprised. I was happy and elated, but I just had this instinct."

It has served her supremely well (no pun intended).

Serena finishes the 2013 season with two major titles -- twice as many as Azarenka and Marion Bartoli, the unlikely Wimbledon champion.

"It is a tough loss," Azarenka said afterward. "We showed our hearts, and we gave it everything we got."

This was Williams' 17th Grand Slam singles title, only one behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. For a different context, consider that she's now tied with Roger Federer, the all-time men's leader. That's impressive stuff; they're the same age, but you get the idea that Serena, unlike Federer, has a few more in her.

"It's an honor to be even with Roger," Williams said. "He's been such a great champion throughout the years, and he's just an unbelievable competitor. So it feels really good to be, you know, in that same league as him.

"Then to be compared with Crissy and Martina, not yet, because I'm still not quite there yet. I can't necessarily compare myself to them, because, numbers wise they're still greater."

One more statistic: Serena has now played in 21 Grand Slam finals -- and lost only four. Only Margaret Court (11-1) has a better winning percentage.

Williams plays in a different, more competitive era than Court. It won't be long before they call her the greatest player ever.