NEW YORK — Serena Williams’ big lead in the U.S. Open final suddenly was gone.
Her serve was shaky. Her hard-hitting opponent, Victoria Azarenka, was presenting problems, and so was the gusting wind. A couple of foot-fault calls added to the angst.
As a jittery Williams headed to the sideline after dropping a set for the first time in the tournament, she chucked her racket, which ricocheted off the court.
When play resumed, in the crucible of a third set, Williams put aside everything and did what she does best: She came through in the clutch to win a major match. Facing her only test of the past two weeks, the No. 1-seeded Williams overcame No. 2 Azarenka, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1, on Sunday for her 17th Grand Slam championship.
“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. 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,” Williams said, pointing her right hand at her fifth silver cup from the U.S. Open, “and every single trophy that I have.”
That collection keeps growing.
Williams has won twice in a row at Flushing Meadows — beating Azarenka in three sets each time — and four of the past six major tournaments overall. Her 17 titles are the sixth-most in history for a woman, only one behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and the same total as the men’s record-holder, Roger Federer.
“It feels really good to be in that same league as him,” said Williams, who earned $3.6 million in prize money.
This one did not come easily, even though it 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 — only to have the gutsy Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner, break each time.
Williams is 67-4 with a career-high nine titles in 2013, but two of those losses came against Azarenka.
A year ago, they played the first three-set women’s final in New York since 1995. This time, they went the distance again, a total of 2 hours, 45 minutes, because Azarenka was superior in the tiebreaker.
“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.”
So after the second set, Williams gave herself a pep talk.
She regrouped and regained control.
“In the third set, Serena really found a way to calm down and restart from zero and quickly erase what happened,” said her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
Azarenka helped a bit, with two of her seven double-faults coming when she got broken to trail 3-1 in the third.
That pretty much sealed it, because Williams was not about to falter again.
“She’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it’s like a clash,” Azarenka said, pounding her fists together.
Azarenka did manage to make it competitive, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. She was, after all, 31-1 on hard courts entering Sunday, including a victory over Williams last month at Mason, Ohio.
But when it came time to close the deal yet again, Williams was too tough.
She delivered six of the third set’s eight winners.
“She really made it happen,” Azarenka said. “In that particular moment, she was tougher today. She was more consistent, and she deserved to win.”