It wasn't easy, and there was nothing straightforward about it, but on Sunday evening in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, No. 1 seed Serena Williams won the 2013 U.S. Open 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 over No. 2 Victoria Azarenka.
What a match, and what a victory.
It was Serena's fifth U.S. Open title and her 17th Grand Slam championship. She's now just one major away from Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the list of most major titles in the Open era. That would tie her for second, behind Steffi Graf at 22.
In the eyes of many, including Chris Evert herself, the 31-year-old Williams is already the best of all time.
Serena's win Sunday certainly helps her case. Azarenka is the closest thing she has to a rival these days, as Azarenka is responsible for two of Serena's four losses in 2013. She was within two points from beating her in last year's U.S. Open final.
The 24-year-old Belarusian has the versatility, firepower and determination to hang with Serena in the biggest matches. But despite the fact that she has two Australian Open titles, Azarenka has yet to take out Serena at a major.
After being broken in the first game in the match, Azarenka fought back to keep the first set even until the very end, where she was broken at 5-5. Serena took the first set, 7-5, and went up a double break in the second set, 4-1.
But Azarenka held tough, got one break back, and then twice broke Serena as she was serving for the championship to force a tiebreaker and, eventually, a third set.
Serena then proved once again why she is such a great champion. She pulled it together, steadied her serve, went for her shots and steamrolled through the third set. Only the best can reverse fortunes when everything seems to be falling apart.
After she finally won championship point, she leaped in the air five times—perhaps to celebrate her fifth title in Flushing—and soaked in the applause for No. 17 on the same stage where she won her first major title at age 17.
What a journey it's been. Evert might be right; purely from an athletic and ceilings standpoint, Serena might be the best player in the history of women's tennis.
But the problem with Serena was always her commitment, especially during the early stages of her career. That lack of focus, combined with injuries, illness and personal tragedy, certainly made it seem like she was not living up to her promise.
It took a life-threatening blood clot and pulmonary embolism, and an embarrassing loss at the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano, to completely turn around her fortunes. Right now, Serena might just be playing the best tennis of her life. She's won four majors in the last 16 months—a record for a woman over 30—and has been playing the most consistent tennis of her career.
Since winning Wimbledon last year, she's gone 98-5 with 14 titles. And just this year alone, she's 67-4 with nine titles. That is by far the most wins and titles she's ever won in one year—and there's still two months left.
The prizes are adding up financially, too. Since she won the U.S. Open Series, she received a $1 million bonus for winning the U.S. Open, bringing her payday up to $3.6 million.
Serena also became the first female to make over $9 million in on-court earnings in one year. To put that in perspective, she has now won more money in 2013 than any active American in men's singles has won in career earnings.
No matter how you look at it, that's impressive. There's no doubt that, while she might not have as many rivals at the top of the game these days, women's tennis is much more competitive, physical and deep than it was in past decades.
Per Liz Clarke and The Washington Post, Serena recently said that the best-ever debate isn't on her mind, and that she's just "not there yet" as far as the "ultimate icons" in the sport like Evert, Navratilova and Graf go.
Still, even by her own lofty standards, she's getting closer. Right now she has an edge over everyone else on the tour, and she is showing no signs of slowing down.
Another year or two like this, and there might not be any debate left to be had. Watch out, history—Serena is coming for you.
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