NEW YORK -- It's hard to rate 17 Grand Slam titles.
Is the first one the best, or the one achieved on a surface most unfriendly to your game? Is it the time you came back from injuries, or the rally from a two-game deficit in the final set?
Or perhaps it's this one -- the U.S. Open championship Serena Williams won Sunday with a 7-5, 6-7 (6) 6-1 victory over Victoria Azarenka in 2 hours 45 minutes on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
Williams, the defending champion, once led, 7-5, 4-1, and CBS announcer Mary Carillo left the television booth during the second set to be ready for the trophy presentation.
Carillo had to march back to the booth after the second-set tiebreaker, which Williams lost when she hit a backhand long, causing her to toss her racket toward her chair.
And then the top-seeded Williams, fighting a swirling wind that ruffled her skirt and her nerves, had to summon every bit of energy to finish off the second-seeded Azarenka, a younger, unafraid opponent.
Williams won her first U.S. Open in 1999 when she was 17. Sunday, at age 31, she won her fifth, and second in a row.
"Being older," she said, "it's awesome and such a great honor because I don't know if I'll ever win another Grand Slam. But I'm really excited about this one."
This 17th major title puts her one behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list. And it earned her $3.6 million, including a $1 million bonus for winning the summer series of hard-court events.
Williams had won her second French Open title earlier this year, and seemed well on her way to victory Sunday when she took that 4-1, two-service-break lead in the second set.
But in an uncharacteristic display of nerves, Williams was broken twice when serving the match at 5-4 and 6-5, and then the tiebreak to the 24-year-old Azarenka.
"You know, 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. "But I think that's kind of cool because it means a lot. It means a lot to me, this trophy. It makes me feel I'm still fighting to be part of this fabulous sport."
Williams was so angry after the tiebreaker that she also kicked her racket, but then she played with furious energy and power in the final set. She broke Azarenka's serve in the fourth game when Azarenka double faulted on the final point to give Williams a 3-1 lead.
Williams then held serve at love, ending that game with back-to-back aces, one hit at 126 mph, the other on a second serve.
Azarenka, from Belarus, didn't give up easily, but after a long rally, she had her serve broken again, dumping a forehand into the net and handing Williams a 5-1 lead and yet another chance to serve for the match.
This time there was little drama. Williams -- watched from the players' box by her older sister, Venus, and their mother, Oracene Price, as well as by former President Bill Clinton -- held at 30, with Azarenka sending a backhand return out on match point.
Williams, who turns 32 later this month, shrieked and pumped her fists. She twirled like a dancer and hugged Azarenka, who called Williams "a great champion, maybe the greatest."
The numbers say Williams is the sixth-greatest, behind Margaret Court, who won 24 majors; Steffi Graf with 22, Helen Wills Moody with 19, then Evert and Navratilova.
But she had one of her best seasons in 2013. Williams this year is 67-4 with nine titles, two of them majors. Since losing, stunningly, in the first round of the 2012 French Open, Williams has won four of the six Grand Slam titles and Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles (with Venus).
She also became the oldest woman to win the U.S. Open in tennis' Open era, 293 days older than Court was in 1973.
"She's a champion," said Azarenka, who won this year's Australian Open, the season's first major. "She knows what it takes to get there. I know the feeling too. When two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it's like a clash. That's what happened out there. A battle."
Williams had 36 winners to 17 by Azarenka, which gives a sense of how Williams was always on the attack.
The crowd was fully on the side of Williams, which hasn't always been the case here. Williams had ugly incidents with a lineswoman in 2009 and with the chair umpire in 2010, and when she returned here last year after missing the 2011 tournament because of injuries, she was greeted politely but not warmly.
"It's great," Williams said. "It's definitely a different feeling here now. I guess it has more meaning into history."
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