NEW YORK (AP) — Serena Williams won her first major title at the 1999 U.S. Open, when she was just 17.
She won her 17th at the same site, at age 31.
Given the way she’s playing right now, and the way her game keeps evolving, there’s every reason to believe that collection will grow some more.
“I’m already thinking about what I could have done better. I think I’m a little crazy in that (way), like something must not be right, because I don’t even relish the moment enough,” said Williams, who turns 32 on Sept. 26. “I just automatically think: What’s next?”
After wasting a big lead in the U.S. Open final Sunday against Victoria Azarenka, Williams put aside all sorts of problems — including, she acknowledged later, some nerves — to regroup and regain control. Pulling away down the stretch, the No. 1-seeded Williams beat No. 2 Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 for her second consecutive championship at Flushing Meadows.
“When you’re always trying to write history — or join history, in my case — maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should. I also think it’s kind of cool, because it means that it means a lot to you. It means a lot to me, this trophy,” Williams said, pointing her right hand at her fifth silver cup from the U.S. Open, “and every single trophy that I have.”
She has won four of the past six major tournaments. Her 17 Grand Slam titles are the sixth-most in history for a woman, only one behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and the same total as the men’s record-holder, Roger Federer.
“It feels really good to be in that same league as him,” Williams said.
She earned $3.6 million in prize money to become the first woman to surpass $9 million in a season and $50 million in a career.
But that’s not what excites her.
“I don’t play tennis for the money. I honestly love to play. I love Grand Slams. When I grew up playing tennis in Compton, I just never thought about any of this,” Williams said. “I think my dad got me into tennis because of the money, but me being naive and silly, I never thought about it. I just thought, ‘I want to win.'”
Sure doing a lot of that lately.
Williams is 67-4 with a career-high nine titles this season. Since a first-round loss at the French Open in June 2012, she is 98-5 with 14 titles.
“She’s become a better player, a more intense player. Tougher overall,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach who began working with Williams shortly after that defeat in Paris last year. “This year, every time she steps on the court, she’s the favorite. Every time. And she’s played so many matches with this on her back.”
On Monday, No. 1 Novak Djokovic faces No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the men’s title match for the third time in four years. It’s the first time since 1996 that both U.S. Open singles finals were 1-vs.-2 matchups.
Nadal has 12 major titles, Djokovic six. This is their 37th meeting, the most between any two men in the professional era.
Williams and Azarenka were facing each other for the 16th time, and Williams has won 13. But Azarenka is responsible for half of Williams’ losses in 2013, including in the final of a hard-court tournament at Mason, Ohio, last month.
Plus, Azarenka is a two-time Australian Open champion and was 31-1 on hard courts this season until Sunday.
Oh, and then there’s what happened last year in New York: Azarenka pushed Williams to three sets in the U.S. Open final back then, too.
So it should not have been surprising that Williams’ edge evaporated. She went ahead by a set and two breaks in the second at 4-1, then served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5. But Azarenka kept breaking her, then pulled out the tiebreaker.
For Williams, there were some jitters. Her usually trusty serve, which did produce nine aces at up to 126 mph, got shaky. Azarenka’s powerful swings off both wings gave her fits. So did the gusting wind. A couple of foot-fault calls added to the angst.
As Williams headed to the sideline after dropping a set for the first time in the tournament, she chucked her racket, which ricocheted onto the court.
“I got a little uptight, which probably wasn’t the best thing at that moment,” Williams said. “I wasn’t playing very smart tennis then, so I just had to relax and not do that again.”
After that rough second set, Williams gave herself a pep talk.
“Serena really found a way to calm down and restart from zero and quickly erase what happened,” Mouratoglou said.
A year ago, Williams and Azarenka played the first three-set women’s final in New York since 1995. This time, they went the distance again, playing a total of 2 hours, 45 minutes.
“She’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet,” Azarenka said, pounding her fists together, “it’s like a clash.”
Williams added to her U.S. Open titles from 1999, 2002, 2008 and 2012.
Those go alongside five from Wimbledon, five from the Australian Open, and two from the French Open, which she won this year.
“Being older, it’s always awesome and such a great honor, because I don’t know if I’ll ever win another Grand Slam,” Williams said. “Obviously, I hope so.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)