NEW YORK — Losing her grip again in a Grand Slam final in the U.S. Open on Sunday, Serena Williams raised her arms and stared pleadingly at her support team in the stands.
Her angst was understandable. The top seed and defending U.S. Open champion had made everything look so easy, dropping 16 games to reach the final without losing a set.
But after blowing a two-break lead in the second set against No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Williams gave the telltale signs of an internal meltdown — sticky feet, fingers splayed, balls landing near the bottom of the net.
"I think I got a little uptight, which probably wasn't the best thing at that moment," Williams said.
It might have ended badly. But Williams simply rebooted.
She steadied herself, started serving bigger and regained control in the third set, finally putting away No. 2 Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1 in a blustery final.
"I obviously would have preferred to close it out in straight sets," Williams said. "But going against a great opponent like Victoria, you have to be able to realize that that can happen, and you have to keep fighting for everything.""There's one word," said reigning Australian Open winner Azarenka, who also lost to Williams in three tough sets a year ago. "She's a champion, and she knows how to repeat that."
The two-hour, 45-minute match gave Williams her fifth U.S. Open title and 17th major overall, including five Australian Opens, five Wimbledons and two French Opens.
"Victoria, you played unbelievable," Williams said on court after hopping in the air multiple times when Azarenka's backhand sailed long on match point. "What a great match and what a great person. It's an honor to play against you."
Who would have thought when Williams won her maiden major at the U.S. Open in 1999 at age 17 that she would enjoy such sustained excellence?
With her latest major title, she extended her record for the longest span of winning Grand Slam titles — 14 years and counting.
And less than three weeks shy of 32, Williams might be playing the best tennis of her illustrious career. She has won four majors past her 30th birthday, more than any other player in the Open era.
"She's playing definitely her best tennis right now," Azarenka said. "It really shows how focused and how composed and how much she can raise the level."
Who would have thought that at her most nerve-racking tournament, the place where she had imploded so memorably in recent years, Williams would be so composed?
Sunday, she fought off the wind. She fought off two foot faults (the same call that unleashed a menacing tirade in 2009). And she fought off Azarenka, the one player who seems to feel she belongs on a tennis court with Williams.
"She's maturing," said her mother, Oracene Price. "She calmed down in the match, stopped being mad with the wind and got herself together."
Patrick Mouratoglou, who joined Williams' team as a coaching adviser, said the strategy to build more consistency from the baseline and add variety to her power game had been validated by what is by some measures her best season ever.
"She became even a better player, a more intense player, a tougher opponent," he said.
The French Open winner, Williams will exit 2013 with one fewer major title than 2002, her only three-Slam season. But tape to tape, she has played her most complete season, with more titles (9) and more wins (67-4) and several fall events still to come.
While it may be hard to call Williams-Azarenka a bona fide rivalry — the American leaves New York a perfect 8-0 in Grand Slam meetings and 13-3 overall — Azarenka has split two of their last four meetings on hard courts and has pushed her to three for the second time in a Grand Slam final.
Williams also handled No. 3 Maria Sharapova every time they played this year and took down her new challenger, Sloane Stephens, in the fourth round at New York.
In terms of big trophies, Williams and Azarenka are starting to create some distance from the rest of the field.
They have now won six of the last eight Grand Slam titles.
Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk, wasn't ready use such labels though he said there was "good meaning" behind their last few matches.
"The girls are putting out a pretty good fight recently," he said. "If we can have 24 like that, it can be a rivalry."
One thing is for sure: Williams leaves the Grand Slam season with a lock on the No. 1 ranking and another step in her climb of history's leaderboard. She stands even with Roger Federer in major titles and is one shy of 18-time Grand Slam champions Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Asked to compare the feeling when she was a winning majors as a young upstart with beads in her flowing hair, Williams said the victories have grown in importance.
"You know, it has more meaning into history as opposed to just winning a few," she said. "It definitely has a different feeling."
Mouratoglou said he saw no reason for her not to add more in the next few years but was most impressed by her ability to play poised tennis all season with so many expectations. That was different than last year, when she was not No. 1.
"Believe me, every time she steps on the court with that pressure on her shoulders, it's an achievement also to be a winner at the end," Mouratoglou said.
If Williams found her calm in the third set Sunday, she said she was already restlessly sifting through what she could have done better.
"I think I'm a little crazy in that part, like something must be not right because I don't even relish the moment enough," she said. "I just automatically think, What's next?"
What's next? At this age-defying rate, the future for now is on Williams' racket and nobody else's.