serena-williams*The 2013 Us Open women’s trophy has been claimed … and the rightful owner is Serena Williams.

Now adding a 17th title to her trophy case, Serena did something, well many things that either she’s never done or hasn’t been done before at all (not exhaustive).

— She had never defended a US Open title but has now checked that off.
— She received the largest one-time payout in the history of the sport, at $3.6 million in prize money.
— She lost the fewest games of any US Open winner’s campaign
— She has come the closest than any other active woman has or likely ever will come to matching the records of all time greats like Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
— She has matched Roger Federer’s record 17 Slams on the men’s side

All those feats by the world no. 1 taken together, plus those not mentioned, have convinced many that she is the official GOAT (greatest of all time).  The holdouts that are left are shy about assigning her the title because she has at the very least, one and at the most eight more Slam titles to go before she matches are breaks Slam records set by “the greats” of yesterday when things were a little different.

Never the less, she is on a mission and continues defying the odds.

At a very ripe age of 31-years-old, Serena Williams seems to be playing the best tennis she’s ever played – taken with a grain of salt, because she had already won double digit Slams before finding this new form.   Since she’s returned from a medical challenge that almost claimed her life a couple of years ago, she has been on a baffling ascension to untouchable status, defying the odds of your average tennis player.

In tennis, the players seem to age in a way similar to dog years, because 30 is typically the “I still play because I love it, but I’m not what I used to be” zone.  31 is simply considered “old.”  Look at Roger Federer.  At 32, for the first time in his elite career, he wasn’t able to reach a single Slam final this year.  He went from winning Wimbledon last year to now being beaten by virtual amateurs as compared to his usual level of play.

So, while Roger Federer is now considered aging and his game diminished, Serena has just – with two occurring this year (French Open, US Open), along with seven other tour titles – met his career best of 17 Grand Slams and did it in the most devastating of ways.  She served up 5 bagels (0s) and 4 breadsticks (1s), all straight sets wins but one, with a draw that contained surging American hope, Sloane Stephens, two former Grand Slam champions, Li Na and Francesca Schiavone, and a tenacious 24-year-old world no. 2 and holder of two Grand Slam titles herself, Victoria Azarenka … a stunning performance to say the least.

The latter of those opponents in the no. 1 seeded Williams’ US Open draw is who she had to take down in Sunday’s 2013 US Open women’s final.  And as it has been over the last year between the two talented women, the match was one to remember.

With a 3:30 pm start time following the fanfare of Ne-Yo performing America the Beautiful as a massive American flag was unfurled by soldiers of the US Armed Forces, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and an unexpected opponent took to center court in Ashe Stadium to play for this year’s US Open title.

Who was the third opponent, you ask?  The wind.

The configuration of Ashe is such that its bowl like structure seems to attract and capture swirling wind, wreaking havoc on the the well-intentioned shots of all who take to it to play.  And it did just that to both opponents who were already riddled with nerves due to the magnitude of Sunday’s occasion: Azarenka was trying to avenge her devastating championship match loss to Serena during last year’s US Open where she had served for the match and Serena was attempting to take another step toward matching the records of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, 18 Slams, along with attempting to earn the largest one-time payout in the history of the sport, $3.6 million.

But mother nature hasn’t been known to show any sympathy, so the conditions were as they were.

The swirling wind, fiercely blowing the American flag flying above the stadium, caused two immediate breaks of serves.  Victoria gave up her opening service game and Serena donated her directly afterwards. The scoreline was 1-1.   After giving the break right back, Serena was seen on the monitor extending her arms toward her box and frustratingly mouthing,  “I can’t play in this wind!”

But the match went on.

Serena’s usually devastating serve had very little power on it, her groundstrokes were hit or miss in finding their intended targets and her footwork was surprisingly flat (given her dominating tournament statistics) as the two successfully battled to hold their service games and advance to the business end of the first set.  Vika seemed to be more in control of the match and the wind, but as usual, the switch that the then-16-time-Slam-champion, Serena, seems to have at her disposal was then flipped and she broke Azarenka’s serve just when it counted, at 6-5, Serena.  With the break, she took the first set 7-5.

And with a set to the good, the confidence of Williams began to take over.

As the ladies returned from the in-between-sets break, Serena came out firing.  She had sharpened up her game from the ground, her serve velocity went up dramatically and after trading service holds with her now-fading opponent, Serena cranked it up another gear and got the early break to go up 3-1.  She was cruising at that point, headed for a sure straight sets finish, including grabbing a second “insurance break” at 3-1 to give herself room for mistakes.

With the second break, Serena went up 4-1, but that’s when things got a little tricky.

That insurance policy she took out had to be cashed in immediately, because Azarenka began to scrap and go for broke – aided by loose play from Serena – and she got one of the breaks of serve back.  It was then 4-2, but Serena wasn’t fretting much, because she had found her ground game form and used it to negate the burgeoning loss of confidence on her serve.  She held and went up 5-2.

The energy inside Ashe at that point was on full tilt, because the crowd – having been boisterously backing Serena from the time the players were called to the court – could almost taste their “Queen of New York” hoisting 2013 US Open trophy, defending her title and edging closer to making history.   And Serena could taste it too … but to ill affect.

Inspired “all or nothing” play from Azarenka and nervous unforced errors by the defending champion, likely due to what was as stake, allowed Vika to hold for 5-3 and when Serena went to her usually “sure thing” serve to serve it out, she faltered … badly.  She lost the game on a double fault, something she rarely does.

Now it’s at 5-4 and Vika holds, coming up with powerful groundstrokes and near-perfect net play, troubling Serena into making more errors.  No worries, though, because there was no way the great, experienced Serena Williams was gonna drop serve twice in trying to close out a match, but … yep, she did.  5-5.

Then comes the hand, which deserves credit for many of Serena’s accomplishments over the recent years, because it’s her way of calming down and getting back to the task at hand.  When she extends her well-manicured hands, she finds the peace she needs to regain control.  Thus, she finally held serve again.  Now it’s  6-5.    But Vika was well aware of the momentum shift and was buoyed by it to level it at 6 all.

Then come the tiebreaker.

Vika started out by narrowly avoiding the mini break and Serena followed by holding her two serves.  It was 2-1, Serena.  Vika, up to serve again, lost one of her serves, taking the score to 3-2, Serena. After a few more points and a cat fight, the Belarusian found herself serving for the set.  She dropped one chance, making the score 6-7, Vika, and evoking a signature “c’mon” roar from Serena as they changed ends, but was able to seal the deal off a careless return mistake by Williams.  The set was over and in deja vu-like fashion (2012 US Open and Cincinnati), Vika had fought back from being down 4-1 to level the match at a set a piece.

Serena was devastated and the fans were in shock and disbelief.  She motioned as if she were going to smash her racquet into the court as she walked toward her chair, but chose to angrily toss it at it once she got there.  Good move, given her history in New York.

Time … play … set three begins.

The wind had become a non-factor by this point, because with more determination comes more power and that tends to equalize its effects.  So, on serve first, Serena and her “steady hand” went back to work.  She had more game from the start, so it was her mind that failed her as opposed to her abilities, which “the hand” helped calm and refocus on the mission.

The devastating loss of those multiple opportunities seemed to free her up to just play tennis and in a zen-like fashion, and she all but eliminated the unforced errors and started taking it to Azarenka off the ground again.  She was using short angles, drop shots, lobs and her serve reached velocities that went as high as 125mph.  The Queen of New York was back and nothing was going to stop her from reaching the finish line this time.

Azarenka held serve just once starting out set three, but never won another game beyond that point. Her once efficient serve melted into double faults, pressured by Serena’s devastating returns.  Serena had righted the ship and she coasted to match point, taking the next 5 games for a 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 win over her once again devastated rival.

Serena bounded in the air multiple times with glee when the match ending shot from Azarenka went long, as she had conquered her nerves and the Belarusian to best herself, yet again.

It was a gut wrenching final, with both ladies bringing their best and giving all they had, but the predicted conclusion, Serena Williams defending her title in New York and walking away with R.E.S.P.E.C.T and an enormous cash prize came to pass.

“I gave it my all and left everything on the court,” Azarenka said, “but I was playing against the greatest of all time … and she deserves the win.”

Congratulations, Serena Williams, on a job well done and taking one more step toward being The GOAT of women’s tennis.