Given all of the setbacks Serena Williams shrugged aside over the years — on tennis courts and, more daunting, away from them — she probably should not have been worried when she stood two points from losing the US Open final, and yet, she explained afterward: “I really was preparing my runner-up speech.”
Finally tested, and even trailing, Williams suddenly found her composure and her strokes, winning the last four games for a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory over top-ranked Victoria Azarenka on Sunday night, collecting a fourth US Open championship and a 15th Grand Slam title overall.
“I never give up. I never, never quit,” Williams said after the first three-set US Open women’s final since 1995. “I have come back so many times in so many matches.”
In other ways, too.
She missed eight months after having surgery on her left knee in 2003, the year she had completed a self-styled “Serena Slam” by winning four consecutive major titles. Of more concern — only a few days after winning Wimbledon in 2010, Williams cut both feet on broken glass while leaving a restaurant in Germany, leading to two operations on her right foot. Then she got clots in her lungs and needed to inject herself with a blood thinner. Those shots led to a pool of blood gathering under her stomach’s skin, requiring another procedure in hospital.
In all, she was off the tour for about 10 months, returning last year.
“She was so disgusted at home. She felt like she was useless. That’s the way it is with athletes, I guess. She couldn’t sit still,” said Williams’ mother, Oracene Price. “She was getting depressed. A lot to overcome.”
Back on May 29, she lost to a woman ranked No. 111 at the French Open, the American’s only first-round exit in 49 career Grand Slam tournaments.
“I was miserable after that loss in Paris. I have never been so miserable after a loss,” Williams said. “I pulled it together ... Sometimes, they say, it’s good to lose.”
Since then, Williams is 26-1, including titles at Wimbledon, the London Olympics and the US Open.
“She’s definitely the toughest player, mentally, there is, and she’s got the power,” said Azarenka, who managed only 13 winners, 31 fewer than Williams.
Forget what the rankings say. Williams, who was seeded fourth, is dominating the game right now and she has been dominant, off and on, for more than a decade.
She won her first major title age 17 at the 1999 US Open. Winning titles 13 years apart at the same Grand Slam tournament represents the longest span of success in the professional era, which began in 1968. Martina Navratilova (Wimbledon in 1978 and 1990) and Chris Evert (French Open in 1974 and 1986) had the longest previous spans of 12 years.
“Yeah, three decades — the ’90s, 2000s, 2010s,” said Williams, who turns 31 on Sept. 26. “That’s kind of cool.”
She is the first woman in her 30s to win the US Open since Navratilova in 1987.
Williams also showed a more mature side on Sunday, avoiding the sort of flareups at officials that got her in trouble during her last two trips to the US Open.
“This is the first year ... in a long time,” Williams said, “I haven’t lost my cool.”
In the 2009 semi-finals, Williams was angered by a foot-fault call that resulted in a double fault, setting up match point for her opponent, Kim Clijsters. Williams launched into a racket-brandishing tirade that resulted in a fine and a Grand Slam probation.