Serena Williams claimed the 17th Grand Slam title of her career and her fifth US Open trophy when she beat Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 here to underline her status as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Azarenka, having beaten Williams twice this year, has emerged as the opponent most likely to challenge her supremacy, and for the second year in succession pushed the American harder than anyone in her home Grand Slam event. Twelve months ago the 24-year-old from Belarus led 5-3 in the final set before losing the last four games.
Although she did not go as close to victory on this occasion, she could still take pride in making a remarkable comeback from 4-1 down in the second set. Williams, dropping a set for the first time in the tournament, was made to work hard before completing her first successful defence of her home Grand Slam title.
The win takes Williams within one Grand Slam singles title of the totals won by both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and leaves her just five behind the 22 won by Steffi Graf. It also earned her prize money of $3.6m (£2.3m) thanks to a bonus for her performances in the tournaments in the build-up to the year’s final Grand Slam event. The cheque takes her earnings for this year to more than $9m (£5.8m) – only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have ever won more in a single season – and her career prize money to more than $50m (£32m).
The quality of the match was all the more commendable considering the conditions, which were arguably the most difficult seen here over the last fortnight. A strong wind made it hard for both players to judge the length of their shots and forced them to make constant readjustments. Both had trouble with their ball toss as the unpredictable wind swirled around Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams also had to control her emotions after twice being foot-faulted. Four years ago her tirade against a line judge who foot-faulted her cost her the match against Kim Clijsters here, but this time the American bit her lip and got on with her game.
If Azarenka could not match Williams’ power, she made up for that shortcoming with the invention of her game. The two-times Australian Open champion outwitted the American with several superbly executed drop shots, often turning the blustery wind to her advantage.
The challenge posed by the conditions was evident in the first two games. Azarenka was broken to 15 in the opener, Williams crashing a big backhand winner on her second break point, but broke back immediately, her opponent making an unforced backhand error at 30-40.
There were no more breaks of serve until the 11 game, but Williams in particular struggled to cope with the swirling breeze. “I can’t play in this wind,” the world No 1 shouted up at her box as she regularly mishit the ball.
When she served at 4-5 Williams hung on grimly in a game that lasted nearly 10 minutes, Azarenka having repeatedly gone within two points of taking the set. However, everything changed when Azarenka served at 5-5 and 40-15. Starting with a bold forehand winner down the line, Williams won eight points in a row to take the set after 58 minutes.
The winner of the first set had won the title here in the previous 18 finals and Williams immediately took charge of the second, breaking in the opening game. The American recovered from 15-40 down when serving at 2-1 and in the following game Azarenka went into meltdown.
The Belarusian has had trouble with her serve throughout the tournament, although she had kept it together in the final until this moment. Serving at 30-0, Azarenka double-faulted for the first time in the match. From 30-30 she double-faulted twice more to give Williams a double break and a 4-1 lead.
Victory for Williams seemed there for the taking, but Azarenka showed the fearless spirit that has made her a regular contender for the biggest prizes. Williams, who has arguably the best serve in the history of women’s tennis, served for the match on three occasions, only for Azarenka to keep fighting back, even after dropping her own serve yet again at 5-5.
The set went to a tie-break, in which Williams led 3-1 before Azarenka fought back to lead 6-4. Williams saved the first two set points with a service winner and a superbly constructed rally, but after Azarenka had forced a third by going 7-6 up, the American hit a backhand long.
If the momentum appeared to be with Azarenka, there could be no doubting Williams’ resolve in the decider. Azarenka double-faulted on break point when serving at 1-2 and was broken again two games later. This time Williams did not let her opponent off the hook. In the next game Azarenka saved the first match point with some bold hitting, but on the second her overhit backhand return secured Williams’ victory after more than two and three-quarter hours.