NEW YORK -- This must be conceded: When delivered with a Slavic accent, even the most cartoonish declarations of intent, the most warlike descriptions of a tennis match, can seem perfectly sane. For example, no I'm-all ... and-she's-like American player could, as Victoria Azarenka did before the 2013 U.S. Open final, pull off describing the way to beat Serena Williams as, "You've got to fight, you've got to run, you've got to grind and you've got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have."
Yes, it sounded great, even right somehow. But then, an odd suspension of disbelief often occurs in native minds under the spell of stilted English, like the year moviegoers didn't giggle when Ivan Drago told Rocky, "I must break you." And after all the gnashing and grinding was through Sunday night, after Williams survived a startling loss of serve and nerve to win her 17th major title, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1, it fell again to the resilient and daring daughter of Minsk, Belarus, to boil the matter to an elemental truth. The Open may preen about these days with a high-finance, high-fashion gloss, but at its core it's still a jungle of ambition.
"She's a champion," Azarenka, 24, said Sunday after losing her second straight three-set final to Williams at Flushing Meadow. "And she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it's like a clash. That's what happens out there, those battles. And in the important moments, it's who is more brave, who is more consistent or who takes more risk. With somebody like Serena, you got to take risk. You can never play safe."
Yet as a cool wind swirled the skirt up her back and the chance to take another bite out of history edged closer, it was the usually relentless Williams who buckled. After Azarenka double-faulted three times to hand her a set and 4-1 lead in the second, Serena twice served for the title and twice was broken -- the same number of times she had been all tournament. Suddenly, Azarenka was running free, winning crowd-pleasing points at net, outhitting Williams at key moments. She smacked a swing-volley with the gale at her back and still caught the line. She challenged a call and was right by a hair. Seven times, Azarenka had played Williams at a major and lost. Now, Sunday evening, the tennis cosmos seemed to be shifting.
"When you're always trying to write history -- or join history, in my case -- maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should," Williams said. "I also think it's kind of cool because it means that it means a lot to you."
This Open meant plenty to both, which should come as a relief to a tour that, for years now, has seen too many of its top players undone by a worrying lack of fire. Williams has all but carried the women's game since completing her return from a near-fatal pulmonary embolism 14 months ago, while carrying herself with a maturity rarely seen during even her finest years on court. Too often, her tennis career was potholed by sluggish trods to practice, or forays into fashion, nail-care school or acting. But her 67-4 record this year, improved footwork, focus and fitness all point to a talent that, at 31, is finally and fully engaged. Without that commitment, Sunday's third-set rebound to dominant form would almost be unthinkable.
"I still do so much fashion; I have a new Web series coming out," Williams said late Sunday night, sitting in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium. "But the difference is I'm playing more. I'm practicing more. I'm on the court more; I'm doing more than I've ever done. I'm taking tennis more serious and I appreciate the moments more. When it almost was taken away, I remember I asked, 'Will I be able to play tennis again?' I never thought I would ever have to ask that question. I never really liked practicing, but now every time I go on court I'm, like, 'This is fun.' I enjoy every moment more now."
Such commitment -- along with that gorgeous monster serve -- has made it easy for many to declare parts or all of Serena's game "the greatest of all time," a harmless enough exercise, and one easy to pull off given tennis' historically unstable landscape. What with the shift from amateur to "open" draws, the oft-radical changes in equipment, even just the gradual upgrade of the Australian Open to a must-play event, the sport has no choice but to fuel such debates with only a vague consensus.
"The greatest tennis player we've ever seen," Chris Evert announced after watching Williams double-bagel Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals. "She doesn't have the best record, but nobody's had a game like her."
And, really now, who's going to argue with Chrissie? She stands right in front of Serena with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, tied with Martina Navratilova, whom the consensus these days vaguely declares, along with Steffi Graf and her 22, Williams' only real, all-time competition. It makes for endless debate -- perfect, really, for a network looking to fill endless hours of broadcast time -- in which no one can ever be wrong.
"I go by numbers," Williams said. "I don't think I'm the greatest because Steffi has way more Grand Slams than me."
And that's usually where everyone lands, exhausted, while Margaret Court and her 24 Slam titles get kicked mystifyingly to the curb. Then time and interest runs out, and the real, disquieting question gets glossed over for another day. To wit: Serena no doubt belongs in the conversation, and could well end it with two more dominant years. But is that only because she's great? Or is it also because the women's game, especially at the top, keeps failing lately to produce a consistent challenger? The retirements of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters -- not to mention the decline of her sister Venus -- left Williams operating virtually in a league of her own.
No. 6 Li Na, for example, seemed a possible threat in Queens. At 31 she, too, had reached peak physical condition and been revitalized by a new coach, Carlos Rodriguez. But the mere prospect of meeting Serena in their semifinal proved overwhelming. Li wandered into Ashe Stadium on Friday afternoon like someone taking a tour.
"When I walk to the court, I was feeling the court was so big," she said after the 6-0, 6-3 loss. "I mean, even my side, I was feeling like it was a football [field]. ... I cannot focus."
The moment he saw Li standing at the baseline, waiting for Serena to get up from her seat and play the first point, Rodriguez, Henin's longtime mentor, knew his latest project was in trouble.
"I'm saying, 'She already took a grip on this match! Congratulations!' " he said of Williams. "Because before they start, she's already in control of the situation. Point for her: The match had started already for Serena, but not for Li Na. Understand? That's why she's so good.
"And Serena's the kind of player -- and it's why she's one of the best ever, you cannot learn this -- at the most difficult moment of the match she's always the greatest. That's why she's Serena Williams. Justine was different. But Serena has something that many players have but it's more developed: She's never done. She is always there, and everybody knows that. That's why it's so difficult to beat her."
At the same time, Rodriguez says, the women's field largely lacks the variety and sting, the constitutional stubbornness, to push Williams out of her comfort zone.
"She doesn't have to deal with players like Justine and Kim anymore; that's the main reason why she's stronger than before," he said. "Today, Serena's better because she does things like she didn't before -- change the pace, more variation on her serve. She added a lot to her game. But many players today play her same game -- and for her it's easier to deal with."
Of course, this is not Serena's problem and it's not all that rare. The men's game has enjoyed a golden age the last few years, but not long ago the man she has now matched for major singles titles, Roger Federer, was hearing the same complaint.
"Of course he's not playing as well as he did five years ago, but the field wasn't challenging him then either," Navratilova said. "Other than Nadal on clay, Roger had all the time to do his stuff; nobody was really bothering him. And with Serena, they try to outhit her. Like, really? It's like when they'd try to go at me: Thank you. I'll take it. Please do. Hit it harder!
"There are very few players who have that ability to bother her. That's why Sam Stosur beat her [in the 2011 U.S. Open final]. It wasn't that Serena had that much of an off-day; it's how Stosur played that bothered her. So now she's saying, Thank you very much. She's sitting there on the baseline, powering her way through people. They can't really threaten her."
Only Azarenka -- with two wins over Williams this year, and Sunday's meeting yet another chance to go to class on her -- has shown the progress, grit, variety and bigness of spirit needed to take Serena down consistently. When she said, of Sunday, "I gave my heart; I fought as hard as I could," it wasn't just accented bluster. Flopped on a bench in a hallway afterward, Azarenka looked shattered. Theirs is a lopsided rivalry, all time, but close to even in 2013. As, Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, puts it, Azarenka is "still building herself." Time and age could well make the margin even tighter as Williams makes the final push of her career.
"She obviously has something about her," Serena said Sunday night of Azarenka. "She can be down and she'll come back; she can be up and she will play like she's down. She has a hunger for the game that you don't see very often and it's really good to see that she wants to get better -- just for tennis and for nothing else. It's really refreshing. She's completely different than anyone, and that's another cool thing about her. She has a lot of hunger, just like me. I have a lot of hunger. I still do."
It happens to everyone. After years spent trying on different styles, clothes, speech patterns, even professions, eventually you understand what fits. You accept what you're best at. You come to yourself. Williams will be 32 this month.
"She wanted to do other things; she was curious also," Mouratoglou said. "Maybe now she realizes how good she is at tennis, how exceptional she is."
Yes, now Serena realizes. She keeps insisting that her life today -- the wins, the warmer crowds, this stage of her career -- is all a bonus, but she's also greedy. She won't be leaving anytime soon.