NEW YORK — Fussing with her skirt and flubbing her shots, Serena Williams was troubled in the U.S. Open final by the swirling air and the strong play of Victoria Azarenka.
After one miss, Williams declared, "I can't play in this wind." After blowing a big second-set lead, Williams chucked her racket toward the sideline, and it bounced back onto the court.
In the end, Williams pulled herself together, as she usually does when it matters the most. Facing her first test of the past two weeks, the No. 1-seeded Williams overcame No. 2 Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 on Sunday for a fifth championship at Flushing Meadows and second in a row.
Williams, who turns 32 in 2½ weeks, raised her Grand Slam singles title count to 17, the sixth-most in history and one shy of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Williams collected a $3.6 million prize, including a $1 million bonus for producing the best results during the North American summer hard-court circuit leading up to the U.S. Open.
Helped by nine aces, one at 126 mph, Williams improved to 67-4 with a career-best nine titles in 2013. Since a first-round exit at the 2012 French Open, Williams is 98-5 with 14 titles, winning four of the past six Grand Slam tournaments.
But this one did not come easily, even though it appeared to be nearly over when Williams went ahead by two breaks at 4-1 in the second set. Williams served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5 — only to have the gutsy Azarenka break each time.
This was a rematch of last year's final, also won by Williams in three sets, and two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka provided another challenge with her big swings off both wings.
Four times, Azarenka was only two points from taking the opening set. At one such moment, with Williams serving at deuce after a double-fault, she was called for a foot fault, erasing what would have been a 121 mph ace. There was another foot-fault call in the second set, too. They brought back memories of the American's loss to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 semifinals, when Williams was docked a point, and later fined, for a tirade against a line judge over a foot-fault call.
There was no such outburst directed at officials this time, although there was that racket toss. After the call in the match's 10th game, Williams simply put a hand to her face, composed herself, and won the point with a down-the-line backhand she celebrated with a fist pump, some foot stomping and a yell of "Come on!"
Williams wound up holding there with a 104 mph ace, part of what seemed to be a match-altering stretch. She won five consecutive games and 16 of 18 points to take the first set and go up a break in the second.
Her lead grew to 4-1 in the second set, before Azarenka made things competitive again. Azarenka is responsible for two of Williams' four losses this season. And entering Sunday, Azarenka was 31-1 on hard courts this season, and she showed why for portions of the final, playing far better than she had in her preceding six matches in New York.
But she simply could not keep pace with Williams, who eventually adjusted to her opponent and the wind that topped 15 mph. Williams put aside her issues to finish with a 36-17 edge in winners.
The first time Williams served for the championship, at 5-4, Azarenka hit a cross-court forehand winner for break point, then forced a backhand long. Williams came right back to break for a 6-5 edge. But on her second chance to serve it out, she double-faulted to get broken for the fourth time Sunday.