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By Chris Oddo

Serena Williams wins her fourth U.S. Open title, defeating Victoria Azarenka in three sets (September, 9 2012) – One minute Serena Williams was two points from what would have been a devastating loss in Sunday’s U.S. Open final, the next she was jumping for joy as if she’d just won her first career title.

In a span of four games, Williams had wrestled victory from the jaws of defeat with a heartstopping, anxiety-ridden 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory over Victoria Azarenka that will go down as one of the most entertaining U.S. Open women’s finals of the last twenty years.

Williams and Azarenka ended an improbable streak of 16 consecutive straight-set women's finals at the U.S. Open on Sunday, but more than its length, the most compelling ingredient of this match was the manner in which it vividly juxtaposed the protagonists of two different tennis generations.

Williams, 30, who won her first U.S. Open as a 17-year-old in 1999, owns the record for the greatest amount of years between first and last U.S. Open titles now; Azarenka, 23, might be the next woman to begin a similar assault on the record books in the years to come.

But for now, Azarenka will have to play second-fiddle to a woman who appears dead-set on prolonging her prime far into the foreseeable future. “Today I was close,” an upbeat Azarenka told a room full of reporters after the final. “I'm going to have for sure another opportunity to make something better.  That's what I'm looking for.”

Azarenka’s remarkably gritty performance on Sunday showcased her steely resolve and uncanny athleticism, while also perching her on the precipice of what would have been a monumental, career-changing upset. The Belarusian, who rallied to seize control of the match after nearly being blown off the court in the first set, served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, then served to force a third-set tiebreaker at 5-6. Both times, she failed.

Williams, sensing opportunity, summoned her mightiest ground strokes and angriest serves for the home stretch, playing with a fearlessness reserved for those who’ve racked up more Grand Slam titles than one can count on both hands.

Credit—and the spoils (a $1.9 million winner’s purse) – go to Williams, who navigated those tenuous games with a champion’s verve; but for Azarenka, who had been refreshingly opportunistic and aggressive for much of the match, there was palpable disappointment stemming from the way her shots seemed to lose conviction at the finish. 

“I felt like I gave it all there,” she said.  “Could it have gone my way?  Probably, yes.  But it didn't.  It really, really hurts.  It was close but not for me.”

The drop in courage may not have been detectable to the casual viewer, but it certainly was to Williams, who has long been a master at sniffing out and exposing an opponent’s fear and using it to her advantage.

“You have to trust yourself,” said Azarenka, trying to come to grips with how things got away from her in the waning moments of the final set. “I did.  I really did.  It just felt like a few shots were just, you know, really close or at the top of the net.  But I have to be positive, you know, because I feel like these kind of matches  every time I play Serena, it really pushes [me] to be better, to improve, to move forward.  I have to be thankful to her for that, you know, as well."

Williams, who has now defeated Azarenka in ten of their eleven tussles, needed no such soul-searching afterwards. Less than two months ago at Wimbledon Williams became the first player aged 30 or greater to win a Grand Slam since 1990. Today, in winning her second consecutive Grand Slam of 2012, she has placed an exclamation mark on a remarkable comeback from a career-threatening pulmonary embolism and hematoma that left her out of commission for the better part of 2011.

“I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but how they can recover when they fall,” said Williams on Sunday night, her wild hair flowing out over a black leather jacket as she spoke to reporters. “I’ve fallen several times. Each time I just get up and I dust myself off and I pray, and I’m able to do better.”

As far as the future, with Williams already at an age where Grand Slam titles are a rare and precious commodity, it might be Azarenka who responds to this fall by dusting herself off. Still a few years from what most consider to be prime championship-winning age, Azarenka showed today that aside from a bit of big-match experience, she might be ready to put some distance between herself and the rest of the field.

But before she does that, she’ll have to find out a way to defeat the legend that clipped her wings yet again today. Williams may be older, but she’s got no intention of giving up ground to Azarenka.

“Yeah, absolutely.  You can see by the scoreline that she really worked hard and she pushed me,” Williams said of Azarenka. “It's going to make me go home and say, ‘Well, what can I do to improve so I'm not involved in a three-set battle like this again?’”

(Photo Credit: Andy Kentla)

 

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