As Serena Williams was about to win her fifth U.S. Open title, her 17th Grand Slam and her second major this year, Victoria Azarenka hit the pause button.
Down a set, down 4-1 and two breaks in the second, Azarenka gave the fiercest, most powerful player in women's tennis a tussle to remember. But she had only delayed the trophy presentation, and when Williams hit the fast-forward button, the title was hers.
After a match of 2 hours, 45 minutes, the longest U.S. Open women's final since timing began in 1980, Williams emerged with the hardware in a staunchly contested 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 win Sunday on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court. Williams, soon to be 32, walked off with the $2.6-million winner's check and a $1-million bonus for winning the summer's U.S. Open Series.
"Vika is such a great fighter," Williams said. "I don't necessarily think I was more brave than Victoria tonight. I felt she went for broke a lot. She changed her game and she kept going and doing the right things. I just pulled myself together and just started playing the tennis that I know I can play."
In blustery conditions, Azarenka's fate seemed to be all but sealed in the fourth and fifth games of the second set. She was down a break with Williams serving at 3-1, but two big forehands yielded two break points at 15-40.
Except Williams would not yield. She won the next four points, two of them with aces, to hold serve. Then Azarenka double-faulted on the last two points of the fifth game for another break.
No ladder seemed long enough to get her out of that deep a hole against such a formidable foe standing on the top rung. But Azarenka broke back for 4-2 and held for 4-3. Williams held serve for 5-3 and Azarenka held for 5-4.
Now Williams served for the title, and the greatest server in the history of the women's game surely would close it out.
The aggressive Azarenka ran it out to 15-40 to hold two break points. She converted the second with a service return missile.
Then Williams broke her back and again served for the match. Surely, giving Williams two serves for the match would be conclusive -- except Azarenka broke Williams' serve for the third time in the game to send the set to a tiebreak, which she won. It was the only set Williams lost in the tournament.
But the third set was all Williams after she broke Azarenka in the fourth game. Williams successfully defended her title in the 2012 Open, when she also beat Azarenka in three sets.
"There was no letdown," Azarenka said of the third set. "I think it was a moment in the third set that the momentum changed a little bit, and I kind of felt that I lost that momentum. But it wouldn't happen because Serena didn't do something. It didn't just happen because I was out of focus or something. She really made it happen."
The win gave Williams her second major-tournament victory this year, on top of the French Open. Azarenka won the Australian Open at the start of the season.
"We gave it our all and fought with all our hearts," said Azarenka, who was in tears at the end of the match.
But she was robustly cheered at the award ceremony by fans who had remained firmly on Williams' side for the match.
It was a longer night that Williams wanted, but the trophy makes all the difference.
"I obviously would have preferred to win in straight sets," Williams said. "But against a great opponent like Victoria, you have to be able to realize that can happen, and you have to keep fighting for everything."