After a set, a fourth United States Open title for Serena Williams looked like a foregone conclusion as she ripped serves and ground strokes Sunday at Arthur Ashe with the same intimidating blend of power and precision that has defined her summer.
Who could have imagined then that by the end of this fine, tornado-free evening, victory would come as a surprise, leaving Williams with her eyes wide and her hands to her head?
“I was preparing my runners-up speech,” Williams said.
She would have been obliged to deliver it if the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Victoria Azarenka, had seized her opportunity when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set. Although Azarenka had done an often-admirable job of coping with Williams’s first-strike pressure in this big-swinging final, she could not quite handle the chance to win her first United States Open.
She lost the first three points, two with unforced backhand errors, and then soon lost the game with a forehand in the tape. Williams, whose form and body language had fluctuated wildly after the opening set, would not lose her way again, putting an exclamation point on the feel-good story of her summer of tennis by closing out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory that will rank among her most memorable.
In May, Williams made personal history of a more painful sort when she lost in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament in singles for the first time, losing her nerve and her rhythm against Virginie Razzano of France on clay at the French Open.
“I have never been so miserable after a loss,” said Williams, who responded by training in Paris under a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
She added: “Sometimes they say it’s good to lose. I still would have preferred to win, but, you know, that was forever ago.”
So it must seem. Since Paris, Williams, 30, has won the singles and women’s doubles at Wimbledon, won the singles and doubles gold medals at the Summer Olympics and now changed her luck at the United States Open, the tournament where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 at age 17 but where she has lost her temper and the big matches in recent years.
“Now she’s starting to really play up to her potential, which is really great to see,” said Billie Jean King, the former American women’s star, who has counseled Williams. “I think she’s very appreciative of her good health now with what she went through and also what her sister is going though. And she is maturing as a person, and you start to appreciate things in a different way as you grow.”
There was much to savor Sunday. Her victory over Azarenka, the 23-year-old from Belarus, gave Williams a 15th Grand Slam singles title. Although Azarenka will remain No. 1 and Williams No. 4 on Monday, her victory made Williams the clear player of the year as the only woman to win two major singles titles (three if you consider the Olympics a major).
“Even though I’m 30, I feel so young,” Williams said. “I’ve never felt as fit and more excited and more hungry.”
She prevailed despite a significant dip in form in a final in which she hit 44 winners but also made 45 unforced errors. In her first six matches in New York, Williams often looked unbeatable, never coming close to dropping a set. She had not dropped a set in her three previous matches against Azarenka this year, taking a 9-1 lead in their series. At Wimbledon, after she defeated Azarenka, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the semifinals, Azarenka’s coach Sam Sumyk seemed both impressed and perplexed as he talked about the challenge. “It’s the power; Vika just didn’t have an answer for the power,” Sumyk said.
She had no answer in the first set here either as Williams put 64 percent of her first serves into play, dominated the exchanges and won 30 points to Azarenka’s 18. But Williams lost her serve in the opening game of the second set on a double fault. When she missed a return as Azarenka took a 2-0 lead, Williams shouted and banged the strings of her racketwith her hand.
It was the sound of a champion exiting the zone, and she soon had to deal with a flashback. In her next service game, she was called for a foot fault on a serve on the same baseline where she had been called for a foot fault against Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of the 2009 United States Open. That prompted one of the most infamous tirades in tennis history as Williams threatened and cursed at the lineswoman and was eventually given a point penalty, awarding match point to Clijsters.
This time, Williams held her tongue, but after holding serve to get back to 1-2, she did turn toward the male linesman behind the rose-colored glasses who had called the foot fault and gave him a long, hard stare as she walked to her chair.
“This is the first year in a long time I haven’t lost my cool,” said Williams, who also lost her temper with the chair umpire in last year’s loss in the final here to Samantha Stosur after being penalized a point for hindering Stosur while shouting during an exchange.
But while Williams did not implode Sunday, she did lose command as Azarenka won four of the next five games to even the match at one set apiece. Williams, looking as tight as her strings, struggled to find a balanced platform from which to launch her huge strokes.
Azarenka deserved some of the credit. Hardcourts are her best canvas. She won her first Grand Slam singles title in January at the Australian Open on a similar surface, and she sharpened her game here by surviving a much tougher draw than Williams, defeating Stosur in a three-set quarterfinal and beating the former No. 1 Maria Sharapova in a three-set semifinal.
Azarenka, who has the reach that goes with being 6-feet tall, is one of the game’s best returners. She broke Williams four times and won 59 percent of the second-serve points. But she is also a ferocious baseliner who is remarkably effective at countering big returns off her own serve. As this final developed from a rout into a classic, she repeatedly conjured fast-twitch, quick-swinging half volleys from the baseline.
And yet after 2 hours 18 minutes, it was Williams who ended up leaping and dancing with delight, and Azarenka who ended up in tears in her chair.
“It could have gone my way, probably yes, but it didn’t,” Azarenka said. “And it really, really hurts, and those emotions come out and you feel sad, but it’s time to realize what happened today. You know, it was a great match. It was close but not for me.”