By HOWARD FENDRICH, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Given all of the setbacks Serena Williams shrugged aside over the years — on tennis courts and, more daunting, away from them — she probably shouldn't have been worried when she stood two points from losing the U.S. Open final.
And yet, she explained afterward, "I really was preparing my runner-up speech."
No need for that. When the going gets toughest, Williams tends to shine.
Finally tested, and even trailing, at Flushing Meadows, Williams suddenly found her composure and her strokes, winning the last four games for a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory over top-ranked Victoria Azarenka on Sunday night, collecting a fourth U.S. Open championship and 15th Grand Slam title overall.
"I never give up. I never, never quit," Williams said after the first three-set U.S. Open women's final since 1995. "I have come back so many times in so many matches."
In other ways, too.
She missed eight months after having surgery on her left knee in 2003, the year she had completed a self-styled "Serena Slam" by winning four consecutive major titles. Of more concern: Only a few days after winning Wimbledon in 2010, Williams cut both feet on broken glass while leaving a restaurant in Germany, leading to two operations on her right foot. Then she got clots in her lungs and needed to inject herself with a blood thinner. Those shots led to a pool of blood gathering under her stomach's skin, requiring another procedure in the hospital.
In all, she was off the tour for about 10 months, returning in 2011.
"She was so disgusted at home. She felt like she was useless. That's the way it is with athletes, I guess. She couldn't sit still," said Williams' mother, Oracene Price. "She was getting depressed. A lot to overcome."
Talk about making up for lost time.
Take a look at what Williams has done lately. Back on May 29, she lost to a woman ranked 111th at the French Open, the American's only first-round exit in 49 career Grand Slam tournaments.
"I was miserable after that loss in Paris. I have never been so miserable after a loss," Williams said. "I pulled it together. ... Sometimes, they say, it's good to lose."
Certainly in her case.
Since then, Williams is 26-1, including titles at Wimbledon, the London Olympics and the U.S. Open.
"She's definitely the toughest player, mentally, there is," said Azarenka, who managed only 13 winners, 31 fewer than Williams. "And she's got the power."
Forget what the rankings say. Williams, who was seeded fourth, is dominating the game right now. And she's been dominant, off and on, for more than a decade.
She won her first major title age 17 at the 1999 U.S. Open. Winning titles 13 years apart at the same Grand Slam tournament represents the longest span of success in the professional era, which began in 1968. Martina Navratilova (Wimbledon, 1978 and 1990) and Chris Evert (French Open, 1974 and 1986) had the longest previous spans of 12 years.
"Yeah, three decades — the '90s, 2000s, 2010s," said Williams, who turns 31 on Sept. 26. "That's kind of cool."
She is the first woman in her 30s to win the U.S. Open since Navratilova in 1987.
Williams also showed a more mature side Sunday, avoiding the sort of flare-ups at officials that got her in trouble during her last two trips to the U.S. Open.
"This is the first year ... in a long time," Williams said, "I haven't lost my cool."
In the 2009 semifinals, Williams was angered by a foot-fault call that resulted in a double-fault, setting up match point for her opponent, Kim Clijsters. Williams launched into a racket-brandishing tirade that resulted in a fine and a Grand Slam probation. While losing to Sam Stosur in last year's final, Williams berated the chair umpire after being docked a point for making noise during a rally.
This time, there was a foot-fault call, too. Williams didn't react at all immediately, finished off that game, then stared down the linesman as she walked to the sideline at the ensuing changeover. He chuckled a bit.
"I'm just happy that she got through this one without any incident and was able to try to forget all that in the past," Price said. "Because I think that was a lot in her mind."