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Serena taking place among greatest

Serena Williams of the US celebrates
Serena Williams: One of history's greatest?
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

A summer of dreams, tinged with gold and bursting with achievement, culminated for Serena Williams on Sunday with victory in a terrific women’s final at the US Open over a gallant Victoria Azarenka by 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.

Singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon; gold medals in singles and doubles in the Olympics (with Venus as her partner both times, of course) and now her first US Open crown since 2008 and her fourth in all. The wonderment was there for all to see in Serena’s smile as she leapt up and down like a child with a new toy and then climbed up onto the flowers box to give her mom a kiss.

“Come on, settle down, focus” were the clear instructions from Oracene Price as Azarenka fought back brilliantly to seize the second set. And, being the obedient daughter she is, Serena responded. But the 23-year-old from Belarus still was playing well enough to put herself in the position of serving for the title at 5-4 in the third — the first time since 1995 that the women’s final in Flushing Meadows needed a third set.

Only then did the world No. 1 Azarenka, who will retain that ranking despite this defeat, start to wilt in the face of the pressure Serena brought to bear as she hit harder and harder on the return and started to move better again after some untypical sluggishness in the second set. In that crucial 10th game, Serena hammered a service return at Vika, which was returned long. Then the Belarusian netted a backhand, put the next shot long and netted a forehand to lose serve to 15.

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The chance was gone. And against Serena you don’t get another. Suddenly the champion, who was searching for her 15th Grand Slam title, had won 11 of 13 points and the momentum was irresistible. Desperately, Vika challenged an official’s call on a ball ruled out, but it was clearly long and it gave Serena match point. It was all she needed, going on to force the final error from an opponent who had refused to let this be another one-sided final, and the crowd of 24,500 hailed her as well as their champion.

After the foot accident in Munich two years ago and the health scare in the spring of 2011, there were many who doubted whether we would ever see Serena on a tennis court again. But she not only has returned, she bounced back with such enthusiasm and success that she is being spoken of as one of the greatest female players of all time — an accolade that may be a touch premature, but if she continues to play like this, it will become undeniable.

If there is one thing that has helped her rise to the heights of the past two months, it is probably the help of Patrick Mouratoglou, who has run a tennis academy in France for many years and helped form the career of Marcos Baghdatis. His appearance in her camp after her shocking first-round loss at Roland Garros came as a surprise, but they have worked together since and quickly have established a close connection.

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Surrounded by French reporters in the players' garden last night, Mouratoglou was talking about Serena’s improved attitude on court, which showed when she shrugged off a foot fault, as if the explosion such a judgment caused last year ago had never happened. “She was also able to raise her game back up to its proper level,” Mouratoglou said. “In the end it made the decisive difference.”

The difference the Frenchman has made is clear. By whatever means, he has brought some serenity to Serena’s professional life. “He’s been really positive in my life,” Serena said. “I love how calm he is. I’m a little crazy. Whenever I look up he always looks so confident. I love that.”

But, of course, the primary emotion after this triumph was one of excitement and joy. “I knew I could do well this summer but I never expected to win all these titles,” she said, with a vast halo of hair framing a huge smile. “Everything has been so amazing, it’s just been fabulous. Obviously I would have wanted to win easy, but at the same time, this is more exciting because you don’t really know what’s coming. You don’t know what to expect and then you get it. This is the best feeling, I think, in tennis.”

Serena won the US Open for the first time in 1999 and again in 2002 and 2008. “Three decades — the 90’s, the 2000’s and 2010’s — that’s kinda cool,” she said. “Thirteen years is a long time between first and last. I was reading this morning how Pete Sampras won in 1990 and 2002. That was 12 years apart. That was pretty awesome. And for me to get this in 13 years — it’s so cool. I’m so excited.”

But Serena was not getting totally carried away. Asked about being called the greatest of all time, she said, “Weird. I don’t consider myself the greatest. In just consider myself a tennis player who’s trying to do the best I can. And from then I’m just Serena. That’s all I am and I’ll never be anything else. Just Serena.”

Azarenka was open and honest and, it must be said, unusually charming in her news conference.

“It was a great match,” she said. “Could it have gone my way? Probably, yes. But it didn’t and being so close it hurts deeply. It makes you feel sad. But I am proud of myself in one way.”

Asked how she was feeling as the duel reached its climax, she replied: “At this moment it feels as if there is no room for error. There is no room for a wrong decision. It is absolutely tense but you have to know what you are doing, you have to trust yourself. And I did.”

She was full of praise for her opponent: “She’s definitely the toughest player, mentally, there is and, of course, she’s got the power. For me she’s the greatest player of all time. She makes me take my game, my personality, my physical game to the next level. Having players like her, like Maria (Sharapova), like Petra (Kvitova) in the women’s tour right now is priceless; they always push me to do better.”

Despite the loss, Azarenka insisted she enjoyed her first US Open final. “I feel like I’m in a place where I belong,” she said. “It’s something that you will never be able to describe with words because the feeling you get, that energy; all eyes on you waiting for you to serve or return, it’s absolutely incredible. And it was a lot of fun. Maybe it wasn’t always showing on my face, but it was a lot of fun.”

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