Up a set and two breaks on Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open women’s final, it seemed to all the world that Serena Williams was on cruise control.
But a gutsy Azarenka rallied and staged a remarkable comeback to win the second set in a tiebreak, only to eventually fall to Williams and her indomitable will, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1, in 2 hours, 45 minutes Sunday evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
When Azarenka sailed a backhand return long on Williams’s second match point, the top-seeded Williams jumped up and down in celebration, having won her 17th career Grand Slam singles championship, fifth U.S. Open and second straight in Flushing Meadows over Azarenka.
It was Williams’s second major title this year following the French Open, cementing her position as the world No. 1.
“Vika’s such a great opponent, such a great fighter and that’s why she was able to win multiple Grand Slams,” Williams said on court as she flashed a huge smile. “It was never over until match point.”
The capacity crowd of more than 22,000 included Bill Clinton, Amar’e Stoudemire, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried and Billie Jean King.
Williams’s 17th major moved her into a tie with Roger Federer — the all-time men’s leader — and one behind icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, winners of 18 apiece. Margaret Court is the all-time women’s leader with 24 majors.
Williams also picked up $3.6 million, including a $1 million bonus for winning the U.S. Open series leading into the tournament.
“Money has never been my motivation with tennis,” Serena said before the final. “I have always just played to win Grand Slams.”
Williams improved to 13-3 all-time against No. 2 Azarenka and 8-0 in majors.
“It is a tough loss but to be in the final, play against the best player who deserved the win today, it’s incredible,” Azarenka said. “I gave it all again this year. We showed our hearts, we gave it everything we got. We fought hard and congratulations, Serena.”
Trailing by a set and a double-break at 1-4, it seemed all but over for the 24-year-old from Belarus.
But a gutsy Azarenka fought back to 6-all by breaking Williams twice late in the second set, sandwiched around her own broken serve in the 11th game. With the wind swirling and gusting in the tiebreaker, Azarenka served for the set at 6-5 in the breaker, but smacked a forehand into the net, giving Williams new life.
With Williams serving at 6-7, she sailed a backhand long, giving Azarenka the set and forcing a decisive third.
On air, ESPN’s John McEnroe called Azarenka’s second-set comeback “remarkable.”
Steeling herself, Williams fought back in the third set, breaking Azarenka for a 3-1 lead when Azarenka double-faulted on break point.
Azarenka was then broken again to go down 1-5 when she hit a low forehand into the net, enabling Williams to serve for the match.
Williams, whose serve improved as the match progressed, closed it out on her racquet. She finished with nine aces and five double faults, while Azarenka served up seven doubles against two aces.
Williams will turn 32 on Sept. 26 and her time atop the women’s game will not last forever. Yet she can tie Evert and Navartilova for fourth on the all-time list by winning the Australian Open in January.
With a couple of majors per year over the next few years, she could easily challenge Steffi Graf (22) and Court atop the all-time list.
“She’s obviously an amazing player, she’s the greatest of all time,” Azarenka said before the final.
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter @AdamZagoria for updates on the U.S. Open.