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Tennis

Serena fights through wind to defeat Azarenka and win U.S. Open

Photo: Erick W. Rasco/SI

After losing the second set, 6-7, Serena Williams finished off Victoria Azarenka 6-1 in the third for the championship.

NEW YORK --Three thoughts from No. 1 Serena Williams's 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 victory over No. 2-seed Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open women's singles championship Sunday.

1. There was a late entrant to this contest: the wind. It blew in from the south and swirled around the north end of Arthur Ashe Stadium, pushing Williams from the moment she opened the game serving from that side. It was a curious scene. Williams seems to always play with the wind at her back, so dominant is she on the women's tour. But nothing blows away a metaphor like real life. An actual tailwind that tousled her game and her head? It disrupted her timing, her serve toss and her pink skirt that appeared to be made of tissue paper. It made her beatable -- nowhere more so than in the service box, the cornerstone of her post-30s dominance. Seeing her make two double faults in her first two games serving from the north side on the way to five overall -- this after tallying just 10 doubles through the first six rounds of the tournament -- it recalled, well, Azarenka, whose shaky first stroke is a renown Achilles heel of an otherwise strong all-court game. The wind's influence brought Williams down to her level, low enough to allow the Belarusian to score three breaks in the second set on the way to forcing a tiebreak. What followed was the equivalent of shadow boxing for Azarenka. With the wind shackling Williams' serve and confidence, she rode more Williams errors and an aggressive net game to a 6-4 lead. Then, after Williams rallied to 6-all, Azarenka played two strong service games -- opening with a biting second serve that went unreturned -- to win the set. Then the wind died down in the third set. Not a lot, but enough for the Williams of old to peek through.

2. There's a reason why Williams doesn't mask her respect for Azarenka, why she went out of her way to call the Belarusian a "great fighter" and "an honor to play against": she's one of the few players on tour who can hurt her. Azarenka does this by not playing to Williams' strengths so much. Azarenka doesn't let Williams lure her into one baseline rally after the next. She throws in some lobs, she attacks the net, and she catches her flat-footed with drop shots; they aren't just new weapons, but bespoke to the mission of beating Williams. The difference between them remains Azarenka's ever shaky first serve. Against the rank and file, many of them her equals from the service box, she can tough through it. Against Williams, a second serve only gets you so far in a slam. If she indeed hopes to turn the tables in this rivalry, she better get back to the drawing board -- and fast.

3. Half of success is what you do for yourself; the rest is what you do for others. Argue all you want about whether Williams' personal trophy case makes her deserving of the mantle of "best ever"; this U.S. Open title makes 17 career major singles titles for her career, Roger Federer numbers. But when it comes to paying it forward, she is the Jackie Robinson for women of color in this sport (with a major assist to big sister Venus). Consider the crop of talent sprouting behind her: 18-year-old Madison Keys, a Williams sisters fan as a tyke, reached the second round of the U.S. Open last year and beat Serena on the World Team Tennis circuit as a 15-year-old. Victoria Duval, 17, drew immediate comparisons to Williams after her U.S. Open first-round upset of Australia's Sam Stosur — the last woman to turn back Serena in a final in Queens. Taylor Townsend, an explosive 17-year-old who last year became the first American girl to hold the number one ranking in 30 years, called her meeting with Serena in 2011 "a dream come true." Tornado Black, the unseeded 15-year-old who came within a whisker of winning the U.S. Open juniors title, is following the Williams blueprint and going a way apart from the USTA. And then there's Sloane Stephens, a frenemy 'til the bitter end. On and on it goes. For those wondering how American tennis will survive after Williams retires, that's easy. Serena's legacy will keep it strong.

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