Serena Williams has pulled off plenty of dramatic wins over her long career, but none of her 14 Grand Slam victories in finals came close to her 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 heart-stopping win over No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to capture the 2012 US Open crown.
None of the final-round foes that she beat has ever served for a match against her in a third set or was two points from winning the contest up 5-3. None were as confident as the hard-hitting Belarussian was deep in the match when she felt like she was out-playing Williams from the baseline.
But as one of Serena’s coaches, Patrick Mouratoglou, said, when Azarenka came off of her chair to serve for the match in front of a sold-out raucous crowd at 5-4, Williams knew she had to stand up tall one last time. She had lost her rhythm off the ground for almost all of the second set and a good portion of the third, and Azarenka was returning beautifully and more than staying with her off the ground.
It was Serena who had fought the good fight in 18 Grand Slam singles finals before Sunday afternoon, while Azarenka had only played in one. As impressive as Azarenka was in wasting Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Australian Open final and out-gutting both defending US Open champion Samantha Stosur and 2006 champion Sharapova in the 2012 US Open quarterfinals and semifinals, she had never had to shut the door on the sport’s most accomplished woman over the past 15 years in her home-country Slam.
“When she really needed it, her tennis came back,” Mouratoglou said. “I’ve never seen it in a match before. I was sure that Vika was going to miss one or two shots and that Serena was going to go for the winners. She wasn't in the second set, her body weight was going back, she wasn't moving, and that’s not her game at all. I knew with her mentality that she would go for her shots, and that's what she did."
Mouratoglou was right. Serena played smart, and the 23-year-old Azarenka was over-excited and committed four unforced errors to lose the game to 5-5.
Serena was very solid in holding to 6-5, and then while Azarenka battled gamely in the final game of the match, she netted a backhand while holding game point, then hit a forehand long and, on match point, was forced into a forehand error.
Azarenka admitted that when she came off the chair to serve for the match at 5-4, she knew Serena would fight her tooth and nail.
“There was no other choice for her to do. In the back of my mind, I had that coming," Azarenka said. "So that maybe was a little bit of hesitation for me. But I have to say Serena produced some amazing tennis. I feel like I could have done a little bit better, but there was nothing that I did absolutely wrong.”
She didn't do anything wrong, as it’s very common for younger stars not to be able to seize every important moment. Serena has been very unusual in her ability to do so, which is why she’s won 15 of the 19 Grand Slam finals she’s contested. That's an incredible winning percentage and right there with any other legend.
“Her parents created a machine,” Mouratoglou said. “You just have to show her how to use the key of the machine, and if she turns it, on she’s the best player in the world.”
Serena has contested a three-set final before in a major back in 2003 at the Australian Open, when she completed her “Serena Slam” (winning her fourth consecutive major beginning with 2002 Roland Garros) in a 6-4 in-the-third-set win over Venus. Justine Henin pushed her hard at the 2010 Australian Open in a three-set loss. Venus took a set off her in the 2003 Wimbledon final, and so did Agnieszka Radwanska two months ago at the All England Club. But none of those players were two measly but really oh-so-very-large points away from victory like Azarenka was, up 5-3 in the third set.
“Nothing is more exciting than winning such a tight match in a Grand Slam final,” Serena said. "I wonder if I have had one this tight. I'm not sure.”
Serena notched her first victory in her brilliant Slam career back in 1999 at the US Open, when it was supposed to be her older sister Venus who would win the first title in the family. Venus lost to 1997 champion Martina Hingis in a marathon semifinal, and then Serena got a measure of revenge for the family when she defeated Hingis, 6-3, 7-6. In 2001, Venus took her down, 6-2, 6-4, and she wept tears of anguish, but the next year, she came back to New York and turned the tables on Venus, 6-4, 6-3, in the final and wept tears of joy. She wouldn't return to the final until 2008, when she overcame Jelena Jankovic, 6-4, 7-5, in a very entertaining match. Last year, Stosur stunned her, 6-2, 6-3, in a match where she lost her temper and then form.
On Sunday, Serena was quite calm, even when she was framing balls well wide and long for patches. She just hung in there until her form returned, and sometimes that’s all a player can do.
“I think I competed really well,” Serena said. “I never stopped competing, no matter what, and I think sometimes if you can just go out and compete, then you can continue to do well.”
Serena now owns 15 Grand Slam singles titles, which puts her three behind two other U.S. legends, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, seven behind the great Steffi Graf and nine behind the irrepressible Margaret Court.
She says that she is pumped up to play more and add to her title count. The fourth-ranked Williams is committed to playing the WTA Premier tournament in Beijing in October, as well as the WTA Championships in Istanbul, which if she does well, may bring her back to the No. 1 ranking by year’s end. Just because she is 30 years old and has been playing pretty much full time since 1998 doesn't mean that she is ready to take it easy. Even to a 15-time Grand Slam champion, winning can be addicting.
“My motivation is so up there,” she said. “I'm so motivated to just stay focused. I just feel like I'm ready for the next tournament. I really want to be focused and do well there and just keep the dream alive."