NEW YORK - Serena Williams leapt into the air and didn't want to come back down to earth. So she kept jumping, up and down, over and over, screaming with joy and radiating relief.
It had taken longer than most anyone had imagined and a much tougher opponent than she'd faced all tournament, but Williams had proved victorious. She was the U.S. Open champion, again - for the fifth time. She beat a relentless Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1 for her 17th Grand Slam singles title, one fewer than Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list.
This one didn't come easy for the top-seeded Williams.
First, there was the wind, blustering and swirling all evening, even blowing Williams'dress around at times when she was trying to serve. Her groundstrokes were inconsistent at times, missing by feet when she typically misses by inches (if at all). Whether it was the weather or nerves, Williams appeared rattled.
Most important - and for the first time all tournament - Williams looked beatable.
Azarenka certainly thought so, never relenting at any point in the match, even when she was down a set. Even when she was down a set and two breaks. And Azarenka did, evening the match at a set apiece in a second set tiebreak.
Williams twice served for the match in that second set, at 5-4 and 6-5, and both times the owner of the best serve in women's tennis history was broken. She had been broken twice the entire tournament leading into Sunday.
"Vika's such a great opponent; she's such a fighter," Williams said on the court after the match. "It was never over until match point."
During those service games and in the subsequent second-set tiebreak, Williams complained about the wind. Her shots would go long, and she would throw her hands up. Down 6-4 in the tiebreak, Williams threw her racquet to the ground, partly frustrated by the wind and partly flabbergasted that she hadn't won the match yet.
The third set - Williams' first three-setter of the entire tournament - proved easier. Williams broke Azarenka's serve twice (including once on an Azarenka double fault), and Williams finally successfully served out the match.
Afterward, Williams and Azarenka embraced at the net. Azarenka told the crowd that Williams had been the better player and deserved to win. Williams told Azarenka she'd played "unbelievable" and it had been an honor to play her.
"We showed our hearts," Azarenka said.
The two had faced off here last year in another three-set thriller, which Williams won, 2-6, 6-2, 7-5.
The win continues one of the best years of Williams' career, in which she has gone 67-4 and won nine tournaments. And counting.
Serena Williams Grand Slam finals
Won 17, Lost 4
1999 U.S. Open - def. Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
2001 U.S. Open - lost to Venus Williams, 6-2, 6-4.
2002 French Open - def. V.Williams, 7-5, 6-3.
2002 Wimbledon - def. V.Williams, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
2002 U.S. Open - def. V.Williams, 6-4, 6-3.
2003 Australian Open - def. V.Williams, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4.
2003 Wimbledon - def. V.Williams, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
2004 Wimbledon - lost to Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4.
2005 Australian Open - def. Lindsay Davenport, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.
2007 Australian Open - def. Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2.
2008 Wimbledon - lost to V.Williams, 7-5, 6-4.
2008 U.S. Open - def. Jelena Jankovic, 6-4, 7-5.
2009 Australian Open - def. Dinara Safina, 6-0, 6-3.
2009 Wimbledon - def. V.Williams, 7-6 (3), 6-2.
2010 Australian Open - def. Justine Henin, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
2010 Wimbledon - def. Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 6-2.
2011 U.S. Open - lost to Sam Stosur, 6-2, 6-3.
2012 Wimbledon - def. Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.
2012 U.S. Open - def. Victoria Azarenka, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
2013 French Open - def. Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-4.
2013 U.S. Open - def. Victoria Azarenka, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1.