NEW YORK After breezing into Sunday's U.S. Open final, Serena Williams ran headlong into a woman who hits as hard, competes as fiercely and wanted to win the season's final major as much as she did.
Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka shook off first-set jitters to stand up to Williams' vaunted serve, yanked the fourth-seeded American from one side of the court to the other and forced her into a rash of uncharacteristic errors.
But two points from defeat, Williams refused to buckle. She won the last four games to collect her fourth U.S. Open title, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, and collapsed on her back.
"I honestly can't believe I won," Williams told the crowd. "I was preparing my runner-up speech, she was playing so great."
Not since 1995, when Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles, had a U.S. Open women's final gone to three sets. And this battle was riveting.
Azarenka threw every possible stroke at Williams in hopes of rattling her. And Williams held nothing back through good stretches and bad, finishing with 44 winners (to Azarenka's 13) and 45 unforced errors (to Azarenka's 28).
In the end, Williams' serve and experience made the difference. She produced most of her 13 aces at critical junctures. And trailing 5-3 in the third set, Williams dialed back the risk on her shots ever so slightly, forcing Azarenka, playing in only her second major final, to win the title outright. And when Azarenka replied with errors, Williams capitalized.
Williams won her second major this year, following Wimbledon, and her 15th Grand Slam title. She set a record for years between titles at the same Grand Slam event, with Sunday's triumph coming 13 years after her first U.S. Open title in 1999, when she was 17.
The victory was her 44th in her last 46 matches. And Azarenka, who outplayed her in stretches and twice was within one point of forcing a third-set tiebreaker, could only express admiration.
"Serena deserved to win," Azarenka said during the trophy presentation. "I'm just honored to stand with such a champion here."
Williams seized the upper hand quickly, breaking Azarenka twice in the first set. But with her nerves settling and confidence growing, Azarenka came out stronger in the second set, while Williams' serve lost its bearings. Williams was broken to open the second set and fell behind 0-2.
Serving at 1-3, Williams double-faulted and netted an easy backhand. Azarenka charged the net, and Williams wildly overhit a passing shot to get broken a second time. Azarenka then held to become the first woman to win a set against Williams in the tournament.
Williams' unforced errors mounted as her footwork deteriorated. But after Williams had trailed 3-5, the crowd stood and cheered when she pulled even at 5-5.
"Being so close, it hurts," Azarenka said. "I felt like I gave it all there. I feel proud of myself in one way, but definitely sad."
The inclement weather that postponed the women's final from Saturday gave way to sunny skies, and a gentle breeze replaced the gusting winds. And Novak Djokovic was a different player when his semifinal against David Ferrer resumed. The defending men's champion grabbed the momentum quickly and rolled to a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
Djokovic today faces Andy Murray, one of only two men to lose each of his first four major finals. His coach, Ivan Lendl, is the other.
On Saturday, in winds of more than 20 mph that wrecked Djokovic's fine-tuned game, Ferrer raced to a 5-2 lead in the first set before play was suspended.
"Ferrer was, I think, coping with the conditions much better than I did," Djokovic said. "I didn't mind getting off the court (Saturday), to be honest, and coming in today."