NEW YORK (written by Douglas Robson/Special for USA Today) -- What's a U.S. Open without a little Serena Williams drama? This time it was contained to the court.
Two points from defeat after pulverizing the field for two weeks, Williams capped a dominating summer and earned player-of-the-year bragging rights by beating No. 1 Victoria Azarenka on Sunday in the U.S. Open final 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
Fourth-ranked Williams, who won singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon and the London Olympics, needed her full mental reserves to claw back from a 3-5 the final-set deficit to win her fourth championship in New York and 15th overall major.
It was the first women's final to go the distance since 1995. At 2 hours and 18 minutes it was the longest in time duration since 1981.
Reigning Australian Open champ Azarenka refused to bow and played bold tennis after Williams raced to an early lead. The 23-year-old from Belarus served for the match at 5-4.
But Williams locked in to her mental toughness, breaking back and winning the last four games and bringing the 23,771 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium to their feet.
When Azarenka's final backhand sailed long Williams fell to her back fully extended, dropped her racket and covered her face with her hands. She leaped several times in the air on her way to shake hands at the net.
"Oh my god," said Williams in her on-court speech. "I honestly can't believe I won. I really was preparing my runner-up speech, because I thought, 'Man, she's playing so great.' "
After coming back from nearly a yearlong absence in June 2011 from a series of injuries and medical scares, including two foot surgeries and a hematoma in her stomach, the American is playing some of her best tennis.
Williams became the first woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year since, well, she did it in 2002.
Pretty good highs after some pretty rough lows.
"I don't think about the downs too much," she said. "I hope I never think about them as my life continues. But I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.
"I have fallen several times. Each time I just get up and I dust myself off and I pray and I'm able to do better or I'm able to get back to the level that I want to be on."
She won her very first major championship at 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. Navratilova (Wimbledon, 1978 and 1990) and Chris Evert (French Open, 1974 and 1986) had the longest previous spans of 12 years.
She turns 31 this month -- she's the first 30-year-old woman to win the U.S. Open since Navratilova in 1987 -- but shows no sign of slowing down.
"I cannot believe that she will lose her motivation," said Patrick Mouratoglou, who runs a tennis academy outside of Paris and who started working with Williams on an informal basis after she lost in the first round of the French Open. "She really feels she can win every tournament. This feeling keeps her motivation."
Since that loss in the French Open, Williams is 26-1, including the Wimbledon title and the Olympic gold medal.
"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."
Williams, who didn't drop a set in New York until the final, promised to be on her best behavior after tirade-marred exits in her last two trips to New York.
Called for a foot fault in the third game of the second set on Sunday -- the same infraction that sent her into a profanity-laced tirade in an ugly 2009 semifinal defeat -- Williams didn't flinch (though she did glare at the linesman on her walk back to the changeover chair).
"Yeah, this is the first year ... in a long time I haven't lost my cool," Williams said. "I think everyone thought about last year. That's never on my mind, because I was just focused. I was just thinking, 'OK, which foot was it?' So I would know not to do that again."
At 5-5 in the deciding set, Williams even applauded her opponent after a precisely angled backhand passing shot.
Azarenka, who will remain No. 1 in the world despite the loss, won the Australian Open in January during a 26-match winning streak to open the season.
"Serena deserves the win. She showed how true of a champion she is," Azarenka said. "I definitely gave it all today. Stepping out of this court today, I will have no regrets."
Azarenka hadn't dropped a three-set match all season until Sunday, going 12-0 in matches that went the distance, including victories over defending U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals and 2006 champion Maria Sharapova in the semifinals.
Williams improved to 10-1 against Azarenka. With 15 major titles, she is in sixth place and trails Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert by three.
"I never thought I would even come close to breaking those records," she said. "But if I can play consistently and play some more matches at Wimbledon, then it will be awesome. We'll see. If I could win two a year it would be great."
Azarenka would not be surprised to see that happen.
"For me she is the greatest player of all time," Azarenka said. "She took the game to the next level."
Contributing: The Associated Press