Serena Williams hits a backhand winner in the 2012 US Open Women's Final.
© STAN HONDA
By Erin Bruehl
After her first round win at the US Open, Serena Williams talked about the importance of mental toughness and how she felt it was the strongest aspect of her game that helped her win so many Grand Slams.
She needed every ounce of it in the US Open final against Victoria Azarenka. Despite up-and-down play from both women, uncharacteristically shaky first serves from Williams and 45 unforced errors, she fought back to win her fourth US Open and 15th Grand Slam title 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
It was the first US Open women’s final that went three sets since Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles in 1995. Her 15th career major title now puts her just three shy of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and makes eight more than the next active player’s total, her sister Venus Williams, at seven.
As she watched the last ball from Azarenka sail long, Williams fell to the ground in disbelief, covering her face with her hands. She had dominated the first set and then improved play and movement from Azarenka and her own errors made the match competitive as Williams landed just 54 percent of her first serves and converted just five of 14 break point chances. Azarenka also served for the match once, leading 5-4, but Williams responded with a pivotal break to stay in the match.
"I can’t believe I won," she said. "I came in the summer knowing it was going to be a long summer, but I knew that I could do well if I just put my mind to it. I knew that I could just be a good player and a champion this summer. I never expected to win all these titles. Everything has been so amazing.
"I think I competed really well," she added of her mental toughness. "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."
She had dominated Azarenka, the world No. 1 and 2012 Australian Open champion, in most of their career meetings leading up to the final and improved her record to 10-1 against the Belarusian, whom she beat for the fourth time this year, adding to wins at Madrid, Wimbledon and the London Olympics, all places where Williams went on to win the title.
Azarenka, 23, knew she had opportunities to win, especially serving for the match in the third, but felt like she did all she could and credited Williams' physical and mental strength as a player.
"I think it was a great match. Being so close it hurts deeply to know you don't have it, you're close, you didn't get it," she said. "But at this moment I have no regrets. I felt like I gave it all there.
"The serve is definitely the biggest asset," she added of Williams. "If you look in both of our games, it's the biggest difference. And the mental, she never gives up. She's a great champion. She's definitely the toughest player mentally there is and she’s got the power. I felt like she absolutely deserved the win. She was the best player out there today."
On Sunday, Williams, 30, romped through the first set, as she had through the rest of her draw leading up to the final against Azarenka and she looked as if she was cruising on her way to the title. Prior to the final against Azarenka, Williams had not lost a set and never won a set by closer than 6-4, which had happened only twice.
Her serve, the best weapon in the women’s game when it is on, had been nearly unstoppable all summer since her upsetting first round loss during the first round at Roland Garros. She hit 13 aces in the final but after a strong first set, her first serve began to let her down.
Williams was in control of the match in the first set; she went on the offensive, placed her serve well and never faced a break point as Azarenka sprayed balls around and hit just two winners.
However, she came out uncharacteristically sloppy in the second set, letting Azarenka break her in the opening game as the unforced errors started to pile up quickly from the American. Her first serve percentage dipped below 50 percent for the set as a combination of errors, missed serves and better movement and play from Azarenka gave her another break and cost Williams her first set of the tournament. By the end of the second set, she had 25 winners and 26 unforced errors to five and 16, respectively, for Azarenka.
"I felt like I was returning much better. I was preparing my opportunities to dictate, not let her dictate," Azarenka said of the second set. "So that was important, to kind of make sure that no matter what the score is, no matter how good Serena is gonna play, I have to stay alert, and when I have opportunity to make sure that I'm on it."
She came out firing to open the third, hitting back-to-back aces, her ninth and tenth, respectively, to close out the first game. But she was not able to capitalize, as Azarenka fought off two break point chances in the next game, the first when Williams shanked a forehand long and then a good serve from the Belarusian set up a forehand winner.
Williams’ serve and footwork let her down in the next game, as a backhand into the net and a looping shot long set up two break points for Azarenka. She saved one with an ace but then a backhand crosscourt wide gave Azarenka the break and 2-1 lead in the third.
Williams kept telling herself to stay cool and not allow herself to become tense as the errors kept piling up.
"I definitely had to relax," she said of the second and third sets. "I feel like the more relaxed I am, the better I play. I got a little tense, a little bit tight, and things weren't looking good. The more I stayed calm, I won more points. I was making a lot of errors and I thought, ‘Gosh, I was playing better’ (in the first set). But it was important for me just to stay relaxed and just to do the best that I could."
She battled Azarenka in the next game after the Belarusian was up 40-15 at one point. Azarenka twice held the advantage but Williams fought back, earning deuce after an excellent defensive lob to set up an unreturnable shot down the line. She earned her first break point chance with a rocket of a forehand return winner, and then took a ball out of the air and hit a forehand winner for 2-all.
She went up 3-2 with two aces in the next game, including one to close it out to a loud yell of "Come On!" But her momentum didn’t last long. After a hold from Azarenka, she then broke Williams at love for a 4-3 lead as the American kept missing her first serves, including one double fault.
Azarenka continued moving well and moving the ball around in the next game, fighting off a break point after netting a forehand. After a few errors from Williams, Azarenka closed out the game with a solid forehand winner down the line for 5-3.
After a hold from Williams, Azarenka took the ball to serve for her first US Open title, but quickly tightened up and found herself down 0-40 after three errors in a row. Another forehand error into the net gave Williams the break for 5-all and the American was solid in the next game, closing it out with a strong first serve that Azarenka could not return for her first lead of the third set at 6-5.
"It was definitely a lot of self belief in myself, but I felt like there was just too many one , two shot rallies that didn't allow me to grind it a little bit, the way I like it, and not really make me feel in control at that particular moment," Azarenka said of the game she served for the match. "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."
Azarenka served to stay in the match and was up 40-30 and then after deuce, held the advantage but was unable to close it out either time. A backhand went into the net from Azarenka for deuce and then Serena earned her first match point when Azarenka sent a shot long. Another sailed ball past the baseline on the next point to give Williams her fourth US Open title.
Williams said she was able to remain calm as Azarenka served for the match, telling herself to make her serve it out; she didn’t want to get broken again to give the match away. It was not an easy win for sure, but for Williams, it made it even sweeter.
"At 30-all I figured I could serve that out and just make her serve for it," she said of the first time Azarenka served for the win. "The least I could have done is I wanted to at least hold my serve, and I hadn't been holding my serve very well. After that, I thought if I could just force another game -- and obviously I never give up.
"It definitely is better as long as you're on the winning side; it's no good if you're on the losing side," she added of playing such a close final. "Obviously, I would have wanted to win easy. But at the same time, this is more exciting to win because you don't really know what's coming. You don't know what to expect, and then you get it. This is the best feeling I think in tennis."