Serena Williams now has 15 Grand Slam titles in her illustrious career. Perhaps none of them came in a more thrilling fashion than No. 15 at the U.S. Open on Sunday.
Playing as a huge favorite despite facing the No. 1-ranked player in the world, Victoria Azarenka, Serena nearly lost it. After plowing through the first set like she has all the rest of her matches in this tournament, with ease, the ghosts that haunted her at the U.S. Open last year in her loss to Samantha Stosur seemed to return.
It's one of the beautiful things about tennis. After a set the score returns to 0-0. Sure, you might be up or down a set, but things feel fresh, it's easy to reset. I would like to tell you that's what happened with Azarenka on Sunday, that her game stepped up and allowed her to get back in the match by winning the second. That's only partly true. Azarenka undeniably did pick up her game, but Serena lost hers.
Before the match, CBS analyst John McEnroe said that Azarenka was going to have to play the match of her life if she stood a chance to beat Serena. Those were my thoughts too. But that didn't account for Serena playing one of her worst, at least in a while.
The numbers tell the story. On the match Serena had 43 winners to Azarenka's 13. You read that right: Serena had 30 more winners than Azarenka yet barely eked out a win. But for as many winners as she had in the match, she had even more unforced errors -- 45. It was remarkable. Every time she took a step forward she appeared to take another one or two backward.
So Serena lost the second set by being broken twice. She appeared to be stuck, looking lost on the court and unable to find her game. Serena couldn't get out of her own way, it seemed, and to Azarenka's credit, she was letting Serena make -- or miss -- the plays.
Azarenka was able to break Serena again in the third set and held, giving her the chance to serve for the match at 5-4. If Serena looked like a defeated woman, it's because even she was contemplating her own tournament mortality.
"I was preparing my runner-up speech because, man," Serena said after the match. "She was playing so good."
Azarenka was ready to close it out, take the final set and win her second major of the year -- and of her career. The tournament was on her racquet. All the sudden Serena shook off the errors and found the form that she has flashed all year long. Nothing like being backed into a corner.
It was almost as if Serena wanted an extra challenge. She wanted to see if she could overcome the late hole, and she did, breaking Azarenka to a massive cheer at Arthur Ashe Stadium to keep the match going. With the first women's final in 17 years going to a third set, you thought maybe we were going to get even more memorable with a tie-break.
Not with Serena, not when she turns the switch back on. She broke Azarenka again and that was it, the tournament was over and Serena was the Queen of Queens once again, her first U.S. Open title since 2008.
The dramatics were only fitting giving the proximity to Broadway. We had to wait an extra day for this final, but it paid off, providing one of the best finishes to a women's Major final we've seen in a long time. Azarenka went from being two points from the tournament title to losing three games in a row and suffering the agony of defeat.
"At the moment it's tough, but Serena showed she deserved to win," Azarenka said. "I'm just honored to be standing here with this champion. Stepping off the court today, I will have no regrets."
It would be hard for her to. Sure, the missed chance at the U.S. Open title, and being broken twice with the match on the line will probably haunt her. Anytime you get that close to a championship you covet and fall it burns.
But this is the truth of women's tennis today: When Serena is playing, she is going to determine what happens, for the good or the bad. She's that dominant in this sport, even as she approaches 31 years of age and even if she's only No. 4 in the world rankings.
It is one thing that has long turned a lot of fans off of Serena, her attitude that she openly shares of feeling that she beats herself more than opponents beat her. Typically, though, it's the case. Usually she's on or off, but on Sunday she was on then off. Luckily for her she was back on by the end.