NEW YORK — Fussing with her skirt and flubbing her shots, Serena Williams was troubled in the U.S. Open final by the swirling breeze and the strong play of Victoria Azarenka.
After one early miss, Williams declared, "I can't play in this wind." After blowing a 4-1 lead and dropping the second set, Williams chucked her racket toward the sideline, and it bounced back onto the court.
In the end, Williams pulled herself together, as she usually does when it matters most. Facing her only test of the past two weeks, the No. 1-seeded Williams overcame No. 2 Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1 Sunday for a fifth U.S. Open championship and second in a row.
Williams raised her Grand Slam singles title count to 17. She collected a $3.6 million prize, including a $1 million bonus for producing the best results during the North American summer hardcourt circuit leading up to the Open. That made her the first female player to earn more than $50 million in prize money ($50,977,995).
"When you're always trying to write history — or join history, in my case — maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should," said Williams, who turns 32 on Sept. 26. "I also think it's kind of cool, because it means that it means a lot to you. It means a lot to me, this trophy, and every single trophy that I have. … (But) I don't play tennis for the money. I play for the love of tennis."
Williams improved to 67-4 with a career-high nine titles in 2013. Since a first-round exit at the 2012 French Open, she is 98-5 with 14 titles, winning four of the past six Grand Slam tournaments.
"It is a tough loss," Azarenka, 24, said, "but to be in the final and play against the best player — who deserves to win today — it's incredible. I gave it all today."
This match appeared to be nearly over when Williams went ahead by two breaks at 4-1 in the second set. She served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5, but Azarenka broke each time, then won the tiebreak. "I got a little uptight, which probably wasn't the best thing at that moment," Williams said. "I wasn't playing very smart tennis then, so I just had to relax and not do that again."
This was a rematch of last year's final, also won by Williams in three sets (they are the only two U.S. Open finals to go three sets in the past 17 years).
"From the first point, the tension, the battle, the determination, it was … kind of like boiling the water or something," Azarenka said.
But she could not keep pace with Williams, who eventually adjusted to her opponent and the wind that topped 15 mph.
"The wind was unbelievable," Williams said. "It just got worse and worse. It just never let up."
She put aside her issues to finish with a 36-17 edge in winners. She delivered six of the third set's eight winners and forced Azarenka into 15 miscues. "She really made it happen," Azarenka said.