It took 17 years, but it was worth it.
Serena Williams, the heavy pre-tournament favorite, won her fourth U.S. Open title on Sunday in a riveting, backcourt-focused, momentum-shifting match against top-seeded Victoria Azarenka, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. Remarkably, it was the first women's final to go the distance since Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles in three sets in the 1995 championship match.
The victory for Serena completes an extraordinary 10 weeks during which she also won the singles and doubles at both Wimbledon and the Olympics. It is the 15th Slam title for the 31-year-old Williams and she now has set her sights on Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who both won 18 Slams, the second highest total in the Open era (Steffi Graf won 22 major titles).
For nearly two decades now, the women's game has paled in comparison to the men, both in terms of producing compelling rivalries and stellar matches in the Grand Slams. But Sunday's match showcased how electrifying a women's match can be under the right circumstances.
Serena commenced the final in blistering fashion, as she served and returned brilliantly. She won 73 percent of her first-serve points. But even more impressive was the fact she won 75 percent of her second serves and 50 percent of return points. Widely considered to be the owner of the finest serve in the history of the women's game, it sets the stage for Serena's overall game and, when she's hitting a high percentage of serves, it allows her to hit even more freely on her groundstrokes.
Also most impressive early on was Serena's backhand return, which she struck with power and frightening precision. Azarenka, who started the year by winning the Australian Open and producing a streak of 26 consecutive victories, appeared to be the clearly inferior player early on; this it not uncommon when competing against Serena, as when she's feeling the rhythm on her serve she's almost impossible to beat.
After the 34-minute first set, no one would have predicted the drama that was to ensue.
But from the start of the second set, the momentum shifted abruptly and without any warning. Suddenly, Serena's serve betrayed her. And Azarenka also began to find her own range, especially with her forehand.
It would have been understandable if Azarenka had begun to look desperate after that first set, knowing how dominant Serena can be in the biggest matches. But to her great credit, Azarenka stuck with her game plan and instead of altering her strategy in an attempt to regain a foothold in the contest, Azarenka just started executing more consistently.
And Serena's level dropped - actually plummeted - at the same time. All of a sudden Serena's serve became a near liability. Her first-serve percentage went down to a terrible 48 percent and she won only 23 percent of her second serves. Azarenka, on the other hand, started to move the ball around the box more on her serve and she began to hold her service with ease. Additionally, Serena appeared to go for too much on her returns, perhaps the result of winning the first set so easily.
Whatever the case, Azarenka took the second set with ease, setting the stage for unexpected drama on a gorgeous New York evening.
Every point of the last set - one that lasted 68 minutes, nearly the total of the first and second sets combined - was a study in tension. While there were frequent unforced errors by both players, many of them were undoubtedly caused by the mental pressure they were inflicting on each other.
As the third set moved on, it was Serena who first cracked. Azarenka gained what looked like to be the crucial break with Serena serving at 3-3, winning all four points. She then held serve with ease, taking a commanding 5-3 lead.
Yet Serena held serve to force Azarenka to earn the victory on her own serve. After Wednesday night's upset victory by Tomas Berdych over Roger Federer, I commented that it was an advantage for Berdych to serve for the victory without having the time to think about it during a changeover.
I couldn't help but ponder the same notion Sunday when watching Azarenka sit in her chair during the changeover when she was up 5-4 and about to serve. Would she get rattled, I thought, and feel the pressure?
Indeed, she did.
In an obvious case of nerves, Azarenka committed three unforced errors in the game and was broken at love. After Serena held with relative ease in the next game, it came down to Azarenka serving again - if she could hold, the final would come down to a tiebreaker, something that hasn’t occurred in a three-set women's final at the Open since 1985.
The final game was, fittingly, a point-by-point exercise in stress. Serving from behind, after blowing a chance to serve for victory, was an unenviable task. And though Azarenka held a game point, she couldn't put Serena away when it counted. For her part, Serena's focus re-emerge when she broke at 4-5 and the end result never seemed to be in doubt over the last three games.
Serena, to be fair, has never been known to be especially gracious in victory or defeat. But on this night, she was magnanimous in her affection for the extremely likeable Azarenka and it cast her stirring victory in even brighter light.
For Azarenka, her performance throughout 2012 demonstrates that she is clearly the No. 2 player in the world. There’s no reason to believe she won’t be a significant presence at the Slams in the coming years. If she develops a more effective serve she’ll likely collect several more major titles in quick succession.
As for Serena; she’s in rarified air, playing for only the record books now, competing against the past legends of the sport.
And Sunday’s victory may be among the most gratifying for Serena, if for no other reason than the incredible crowd support she received in New York. Her sister Venus, in an unusually candid moment earlier in the fortnight declared that she “felt like an American for the first time” because of the way the fans treated her at this Open. I imagine her sister echos that sentiment.