Serena Williams was asked last week what the number 18 meant to her.
“It means legal to do some things,” she said, laughing. But she knew what the reporter was getting at. “It also means legendary,” she added more seriously.
She would not go so far as to call herself legendary — “I’m just Serena,” she said — but she joined some elite company Sunday when she tied Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with her 18th Grand Slam singles title.
The top-ranked Williams defeated Caroline Wozniacki, 6-3, 6-3, to capture her third United States Open final in a row and sixth over all.
Williams had not advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam event this year, and over the last two weeks she has expressed relief and excitement at her success at the U.S. Open. When Wozniacki’s final stroke went long Sunday, Williams
collapsed on her back and started to cry. In a postmatch interview, she choked up just saying the word 18.
“I have been trying to reach it for so long, since last year, well, since the beginning of the year,” said Williams, who received an 18-karat gold bracelet from Evert and Navratilova after the match. “I didn’t really think I would get there. I just felt so good.”
Whatever pressure or insecurity she felt did not manifest much on the court. She was dominant force once again in Flushing Meadows, where she first won the U.S. Open in 1999 at age 17. This year, she never lost more than three games in a set.
Considering that, Williams seemed to be almost comically modest when she said in her prematch interview that she would “try to hang in there” against Wozniacki, whom she had beaten in eight of their previous nine meetings.
But that was what was required as both players made a mess of the first set. There were five service breaks in a row, with Wozniacki holding serve for the first time in the match in the eighth game, trailing by 2-5.
When Williams served for the set at 5-3, a fan in the upper deck felt the need to shout, “Settle down, Serena!” Williams closed out the set, but it was not one either player will want to save for posterity.
Williams had 28 errors, Wozniacki 21. Williams got only 41 percent of her first serves in, and won only 41 percent of her second-serve points. Wozniacki got only 58 percent of her first serves in, and won only 27 percent of her second-serve points. Wozniacki had three doubles faults, Williams two. At least Williams had 15 winners; Wozniacki had one, an ace.
Williams did settle down in the second set. In the first game, she won a 20-shot rally when a backhand clipped the net cord and dropped over to get two break points. She broke Wozniacki on the next point, and then started dominating service games. Williams lost only four points on her serve, one on a double fault, for the rest of the match.
“I think we both raised our level in the second set, and it was just a little too late for me,” Wozniacki said.
Williams broke Wozniacki one more time at 3-5 to win the match, winning a 26-shot rally to go ahead in the game, 15-30, and finishing it with a pair of forehands that Wozniacki could not handle.
Williams emerged from a women’s draw decimated by upsets, the only player among the top nine seeds to reach the quarterfinals, and Wozniacki, the No. 10 seed, was the highest seed Williams faced.
Wozniacki, a 24-year-old Dane who held the No. 1 ranking for 67 weeks in 2010 and 2011, was in only her second Grand Slam final, having reached the U.S. Open final in 2009. Facing a player in her 22nd Grand Slam final, and Wozniacki acknowledged she was nervous and overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the start.
But Wozniacki’s appearance in the final capped a resurgent summer. Since losing in the first round of the French Open, her first tournament after the golfer Rory McIlroy broke off their engagement in May, Wozniacki is 25-6, with three of the losses coming against Williams.
“I think I have definitely played better tennis these weeks than I have in the past,” said Wozniacki, who will return to New York to run the marathon in November. “So it’s definitely a positive sign and a good sign for the future.”
Despite the on-court results against Williams, Wozniacki considers Williams ne of her closest friends and has said Williams was a vital source of support during a difficult period in her life.
“You’re an unbelievable champion and an inspiration to me on and off the court,” Wozniacki said to Williams after the match, adding, “You definitely owe drinks later.”
Williams said she and Wozniacki would, in fact, be celebrating together Sunday night. But she did not allow herself to savor the moment much, motivated as ever to move forward.
Williams, who turns 33 this month, is four behind Steffi Graf for the Open era record for major championships, and she was asked if she was thinking about 22.“Hasn’t even been three hours and I have already mentioned 19,” Williams said. “Oh, gosh. So, yeah, but not 22. I’m taking it one at a time.”