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Steve Flink: Willimas takes fifth Open after second set scare

9/8/2013 10:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—Ever since she collected her first major singles crown here at the U.S. Open in 1999, Serena Williams has found different formulas to carve out her illustrious triumphs. She has taken some of them with overwhelming power and astonishing athleticism, sweeping past her opponents majestically. She has captured other Grand Slam events with supreme opportunism, playing the big points so commandingly that no one could thwart her when it counted. She has prevailed in some cases by coming from behind with a willpower that few could equal or surpass. Add it all up, and Williams has simply established herself among the most estimable big match players ever to establish a foothold in the world of women’s tennis. With her triumph tonight over Victoria Azarenka, Williams captured a fifth United States Open, and it was also her 17th Grand Slam singles championship.

Serena keeps rising on the historical ladder of her sport, year by year, win by win. Only four times in 21 career majors has she been beaten in major finals, with her sister Venus accounting for two of those defeats. Maria Sharapova toppled Williams once in a Grand Slam final, way back when at Wimbledon in 2004. And Samantha Stosur stunned Serena in the 2011 U.S. Open final. That is a record to celebrate for a champion who is more serious about her craft than ever before, for a woman who has found a deeper level of professionalism, for a competitor who knows no bounds in pursuit of her highest objectives.

But with her sharply increased attentiveness, with her almost palpable desire to win every match she plays, Williams can sometimes be almost too aware of what she is doing. She can get awfully apprehensive in the tight corners of the biggest contests. At the 2012 French Open against Virginie Razzano in the first round, she was up a set and then 5-1 in the second set tie-break, but lost the match in a sea of nerves. At Wimbledon this year, she was ahead 3-0 in the final set against Sabine Lisicki but fell in the quarterfinals. Her anxiety on that occasion was unmistakable.

In this U.S. Open final, she took on the one leading player in the game today who is unafraid to compete against her. Azarenka had a 1-11 career record against Williams before the 2013 campaign began, but she had beaten the American in two of three meetings this year, including their most recent clash in Cincinnati. Serena has suffered only four losses in the entire 2013 season, and Azarenka is responsible for half of them. Moreover, she came agonizingly close to defeating Serena in the 2012 U.S. Open final, leading 5-3 in the final set, standing only two points away from that elusive prize. The 24-year-old from Belarus has turned this matchup into an authentic rivalry, and that has not been easy to accomplish.

The first set of the 2013 U.S. Open final was a dandy in many ways. The wind in Arthur Ashe Stadium was blowing considerably, and both players had early problems coming to terms with that burden. They exchanged service breaks in the first two games of the match, but then settled down nicely and produced some stirring rallies and a set that was both hard fought and well played. It was a set Azarenka sorely needed, and she put everything she had into it. In many ways, she outplayed Serena from the baseline, handling the wind more adeptly, measuring her shots with greater precision, finding a way to impose herself as much as possible against a daunting adversary.

The critical game of that set was the tenth. Williams was serving at 4-5 and was close to the brink of losing her delivery. Had Azarenka been able to break there, the rest of the match might have been very different. Serena was serving with a fierce wind behind her back, and was having difficulty controlling her shots and keeping them in the court. She opened that game with a double fault. At 40-30, she served another double fault. Azarenka was two points from taking the set, but Serena released a sparkling backhand down the line winner. Azarenka answered with a superb backhand drop shot that was unmanageable for Serena, and it was deuce again. Serena remained resolute, cracking a backhand crosscourt for a clean winner, but Azarenka clipped the sideline with a forehand return winner. And yet, Williams stepped up her level of aggression considerably, seizing the initiative, winning that deuce point with a backhand volley into the clear. She then aced Azarenka down the T, and that made the score 5-5.

That brave stand from Serena clearly unnerved Azarenka. In the eleventh game, Azarenka led 40-15 but Williams took four impressive points in a row, two with outright winners, two with scorching flat backhands that were too much for Azarenka to handle. Serena had turned the corner. Serving into the wind at 6-5, she held commandingly at love, connecting with three of four first serves. The set had ended in 58 gripping minutes, but Williams had struck back boldly from a precarious position to gain the upper hand. That comeback seemed to propel Williams into the second set with growing conviction. Striking her returns emphatically, Williams broke at 30 in the opening game, and held at love for 2-0. In the second game, she started with a 112 MPH first serve that Azarenka could not return, then served an ace at 114 MPH wide in the ad court, followed with another ace at 117 MPH, and concluded that gem of a game with a penetrating backhand crosscourt that was unanswerable by Azarenka.

Azarenka held in the third game, but then Williams held from 15-40 to reach 3-1, serving an ace for 30-30, taking advantage of a backhand unforced error from Azarenka, producing an unstoppable second serve, and then nailing a first serve down the T that was barely touched by her opponent. It was every bit as good as an ace. In the fifth game, Azarenka was ahead 30-0 when she served a double fault. From 30-30, she served two more double faults, sending the first one long and the second into the net. Williams now had the insurance break and a 4-1 lead. She was up not only a set but two breaks in the second. How in the world could she not close it out quickly from here?

The answer was forthcoming. Williams lost her serve at 4-1, missing three of six first serves, falling victim to an excellent Azarenka return on the sideline at 30-40. Williams was no longer up two breaks, but still comfortably in front. Azarenka held at 30 for 3-4 with a scintillating forehand down the line winner, coming through to win one of the finest rallies in the match. Still, all Serena needed was two more holds to take the championship of her country. She got the first one, holding at love for 5-3, serving an ace at 119 MPH for 40-0 in that game. Azarenka held easily in the ninth game, but now Serena was serving for the match at 5-4.

She went to 15-0, but then double faulted. A forehand unforced error put her down 15-30. Williams drove a backhand approach long with the wind at her back off a low ball from Azarenka, and that made it 15-40. A forehand down the line set up a forehand crosscourt winner for 30-40, but another backhand approach off a low ball got away from Williams. She drove that shot long. Improbably, it was 5-5. And yet, Williams broke in the eleventh game, and then served for the match a second time at 6-5. She seemed certain to hold then. Widely acknowledged as the finest female server in the history of tennis, it was inconceivable that she could get broken here after missing out on her chance at 5-4.

But, astoundingly, she did. At 15-30, Williams released a service winner out wide, and she was two points away from the win. But Azarenka made a terrific return off a 123 MPH first serve, and a startled Serena netted a backhand down the line. She then double faulted tamely, smothering that second serve with too much spin into the net at 71 MPH.

It was 6-6. Serena established a 3-1 lead in the tie-break. Once again, Azarenka refused to fold. She took a 6-4 lead, but Serena rallied to 6-6, once more standing two points away from a straight set win. But Azarenka released a very good second serve into the body with excellent depth, and Serena missed the backhand return. Then Azarenka took the next point, making another magnificent return off a first serve. Williams lost that point when she was forced into a backhand error. Azarenka had fashioned a stunning comeback to reach one set all. With a strong start in the third set, she might have been able to take control of the match.

But Williams displayed enormous composure in the first game of the final set. That was critical. She was down 0-30, and surely she was still reeling from what happened at the end of the second set. But she forced Azarenka into a netted forehand, sent a first serve down the T that Azarenka could not return, drove a forehand down the line for a winner, and was the beneficiary of a forehand miss-hit error from Azarenka. Williams had taken four crucial points in a row. She had held for 1-0, weathering a considerable storm.

Although Azarenka held on for 1-1, that was only a brief reprieve. Williams swiftly recovered her conviction, found her emotional equilibrium, and lifted her game one last time. She secured five games in a row to turn a tense and fluctuating match into a showcase for her talent. Serena held at 30 for 2-1 and then broke Azarenka for 3-1. In the fifth game, Serena released a 124 MPH service winner to the backhand, an exquisite backhand topspin winner, an ace at 126 MPH down the T, and a second serve ace down the T. She had held at love for 4-1.

This time, there would be no comeback for the two-time Australian Open victor. Williams broke her at 30 for 5-1, and held in the seventh game at 30. Her 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 victory was a testament to her deep resolve and propensity to regroup after a disconcerting stretch in the second set. To be sure, she should have won the match sooner. To be ahead two breaks at 4-1 in the second set, to serve for the match twice, to move within two points of winning the match at 6-6 in the tie-break, to do all of that and not succeed—that was, for lack of a better term, very un-Serena like.

But, in the end, it did not matter. She re-gathered herself admirably in the third set and won convincingly. Margaret Court is the all-time leader for women’s majors with 24. Steffi Graf has 22. Helen Wills Moody won 19. And both Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova have secured 18 Grand Slam singles championships. That leaves only five women ahead of Williams on the all-time ladder. She will almost surely move past Evert and Navratilova next year. She should get by Wills Moody in 2015. She could even tie Graf before her career is over, but matching of surpassing Court may be impossible.

In any case, Williams is doing herself justice as a champion. She is a relatively young 31, and I expect her to be in the thick of things for at least two more years, and perhaps longer. Her record is remarkably balanced. Along with her five U.S. Open singles titles, she has won five at Wimbledon, five at the Australian Open, and two at Roland Garros.

She stopped her worthiest adversary in the final of the last major of 2013, did not panic when the second set did not go her way, and came through to record a very impressive triumph. For the 2012 champion, it was a title well defended. It should set the stage for a stellar 2014 campaign. Serena Williams must be immensely gratified that she is reaping the rewards of so much hard work and dedication. Never before has she been this commendable. The next couple of years will tell us precisely where she belongs among the best of all time.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.