NEW YORK — After one set, a fourth U.S. Open title for Serena Williams looked like a foregone conclusion. She was ripping serves and groundstrokes Sunday with the power and precision that have defined her summer.
Who could have imagined that by the end of the match, victory over top-ranked Victoria Azarenka would come as a surprise, leaving Williams with her eyes wide and her hands to her head?
"I really was preparing my runner-up speech, because I thought, 'Man, she's playing so great,' " Williams said. "I'm really shocked."
Although Azarenka had done an often-admirable job of coping with Williams' first-strike pressure in the big-swinging final, she could not handle the chance to win her first U.S. Open.
Serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, she lost the first three points, two with unforced backhand errors, then the game with a forehand in the tape.
Williams, whose mood and form had fluctuated wildly after winning the first set, did not lose her way again. She put an exclamation point on her remarkable summer by closing out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 win that will rank among her most memorable.
"She never gives up," Azarenka said. "She's definitely the toughest player, mentally, there is, and she's got the power."
Since losing in the first round of the French Open in May, Williams, 30, has won the singles and women's doubles at Wimbledon and the singles and doubles gold medals at the Olympics, and she now has changed her luck at the U.S. Open, where she won her first Grand Slam singles title as a teenager but where she has lost control of her temper and her huge shots in recent years. "I was miserable after that loss in Paris. I have never been so miserable after a loss," Williams said. "I pulled it together. … Sometimes, they say, it's good to lose."
The victory gave Williams, seeded fourth, a 15th Grand Slam singles title, fourth most behind Steffi Graf (22), Chris Evert (18) and Martina Navratilova (18) in the Open era. Though Azarenka, 23, still will be ranked No. 1 today, Williams is the only woman to win two major singles titles this year. She managed it despite a significant dip in form in the final, which was the first women's Open final to go three sets in 17 years (Graf over Monica Seles 7-6, 0-6, 6-3).
In her first six matches, Williams never came close to dropping a set. But Azarenka deserved some of the credit. Hardcourts are her best canvas. She won her first major singles title in January at the Australian Open on a similar surface, and she sharpened her game at this Open by surviving a much tougher draw than Williams. But she could not quite close the deal.
Djokovic joins Murray in men's final today
At the end of his semifinal, Novak Djokovic let out a small scream, pumped a quick fist and skipped across the court.
Then the second seed turned his attention toward Andy Murray, his opponent in today's final. To defend his title, Djokovic must deny Murray, seeded third, his first major victory, must summon another moment in New York. "There's some magic here," Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, said. "Always, in New York, there is magic."
The semi with fourth seed David Ferrer was halted Saturday because of high wind and the threat of more severe weather with Djokovic trailing 5-2 in the first set. Vajda said Djokovic "could not cope" with the conditions, but he flourished in the sun Sunday in his 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 triumph. "I didn't mind getting off the court," Djokovic said with a sly smile.