NEW YORK // It has been 14 years since Serena Williams won her first US Open but there was no hint of decline as the 31-year-old American outlasted Victoria Azarenka to claim her fifth US Open singles title on Sunday.
Initially frustrated by a swirling wind at Arthur Ashe Stadium and shaken by Azarenka's second set comeback from 4-1 down, Williams regained the momentum in the third set with her power and range of strokes propelling her to a 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 win at Flushing Meadows and a 17th grand slam title.
Williams will be 32 later this month but she seems far from even contemplating life after tennis.
"I feel great. I have never felt better. I feel really fit," she said. "I can play a tournament like this, singles, doubles, with tough, tough schedules. For the most part, I felt really good.
"I haven't felt like this in a number of years. I'm excited about the possibilities. I don't know what can happen. I just keep playing and do the best that I can."
Certainly Azarenka, who put up a brave fight throughout and looks easily the most likely to take over Williams' mantle whenever she does retire, had no doubts about the qualities of her opponent.
"She's a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there," said the Belarussian.
"I think it's incredible what she's achieving. She's playing definitely her best tennis right now. It is just really exciting for me to be able to compete against that type of player who can be the greatest of all time."
The 17th slam victory puts Williams on a par with Roger Federer among contemporary players of both genders and brings her within one title of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, the fourth most successful women of all-time.
"It's an honour to be even with Roger," said Williams. "He's been such a great champion throughout the years, and he's just an unbelievable competitor and he's still playing, and he can probably still win more.
"He's just been so incredibly consistent, so we have had really different careers," Williams said.
"Then to be compared with Chrissy and Martina - not yet, because I'm still not quite there yet. I can't necessarily compare myself to them, because, you know, numbers-wise they're still greater."
But while she is willing to contemplate history, she is less fond of thinking about what all her success has brought her.
Williams picked up US$3.6 million (Dh13.22m) in prize money for her win combined with her bonus from securing the US Open Series of events, which took her past the $50m mark in career prize money.
"I don't play tennis for the money. I honestly love to play. I love grand slams," she said.
"When I grew up playing tennis in Compton, I just never thought about any of this. I didn't even know all this came with everything.
"I think my dad got me into tennis because of the money, but me being naive and silly, I never thought about it."
Winning was always the aim, she said.
"I wanted to do what [sister] Venus does. I want to win and I want to do more and I want to do more," Williams said.
"To this day I have never ever picked up a check in my life. I remember back in the day before wiring they used to mail it because I just would forget it.
"Someone told me today I passed 50 [million], but half of that goes to my Uncle Sam. I love him. I'm always giving him half my money," she said with a smile.
What Williams does appreciate though is her ability to have been a winner at Arthur Ashe Stadium from the age of 17 to 31.
"I have won this tournament over three decades, '90s, the 2000s, and this one. You can only do that when you're younger and older, so I'm happy that I have had this opportunity."
Azarenka sad but proud
Azarenka walked off court with her head held high after a gallant loss on Sunday, and while satisfied she had given her all there was no doubt the defeat stung.
"I'm not going to lie. It hurts bad," she said. "It's okay. I did everything I could. I gave my heart. I fought as hard as I could.
"I lost to a great champion and I'm still going to have my head up."
After losing the first set, Azarenka produced a phenomenal second where she fought back from 1-4 and 3-5 down to force a decider at an electrified Arthur Ashe Stadium as Williams twice blew chances to earn a straight-sets victory.
But the 24-year-old Azarenka was unable to carry momentum into the deciding set as Williams, who had thrown her racquet into her chair at the changeover, took care of the third set to complete victory in two hours and 45 minutes.
"She really made it happen," Azarenka said.
"There was no letdown. It was a moment in the third set that the momentum changed a little bit, and I kind of felt like I lost that momentum. In that particular moment she was tougher today. She was more consistent and deserved to win."
The ball-striking was superb from the top two players in the world. Azarenka showed enormous determination to recover from two breaks down in the second set, but her fightback took its toll.
Come the third set, she was running on empty.
"It was raising from the first point, the tension, the battle, the determination," Azarenka said. "It felt from every point, it was rising, the level."
Azarenka paid tribute to Williams after the American won the 17th major singles title of her career.
"Well, there's one word," Azarenka said of Williams.
"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 meet who want that feeling so bad, it's a clash. That's what happens out there with those battles.
"And in the important moments, it is who is more brave. Who is more consistent. Who takes more risk. You can never play safe."
Williams was reaching the pinnacle of her career, said Azarenka.
"She's playing definitely her best tennis right now. It really shows how focused and how composed and how much she can raise the level," she added.
"That's just exciting for me, to be able to compete against that type of player who can be the greatest of all time. I'm playing against that person in the finals of grand slams."
The 24-year-old said she was determined to view her U.S. Open as a positive when she visited her family in Belarus this week.
"You cannot sit and say, 'Oh my god, this is the worst thing that could have happened to me.' Because it's not. I just want to take the positive and see the light at the end of the tunnel."
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