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Serena repeats as U.S. Open champ

Serena Williams raises the U.S. Open trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka on Sunday for her second straight title at Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Reuters News Service)

Serena Williams raises the U.S. Open trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka on Sunday for her second straight title at Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Reuters News Service)

NEW YORKSerena Williams repeated as U.S. Open women’s champion by holding off a battling Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 7-5 6-7(6) 6-1 in a windblown final at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday.

Williams bounded in a series of joyous jumping jack leaps after Azarenka’s backhand sailed long on the second match point of a thrilling, two-hour 45-minute final.

In winning the title rematch against second-seeded Azarenka, world number one Williams claimed her fifth U.S. Open crown and 17th career grand slam singles title.

The big-hitting American, who turns 32 later this month, became the oldest U.S. Open women’s winner since tennis turned professional 45 years ago, eclipsing Australian Margaret Court, who was 31 years and 55 days when she won the title in 1973.

The triumph moved Williams to within one grand slam singles crown of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for a tie for fourth place on the all-time list behind Court (24), Steffi Graf (22) and Helen Wills Moody (19).

It had looked like it was going to be plain sailing for Williams after she won the first set, boosted by a late break in the 11th game for a 6-5 lead and then served out a love game.

Williams, who earlier looked confounded by the gusty wind that affected service tosses and the direction of bounces off groundstrokes and was muttering to herself between points, finally settled into a rhythm in the second set.

She surged to a 4-1 lead after Azarenka double-faulted three times in the fifth and her U.S. Open repeat looked undeniable as she had begun to find the range on her imposing service game that saw her serve broken only twice in six previous matches.

‘GREAT MATCH’

But the Belarusian showed her fight and took advantage of a string of Williams errors to break right back for 4-2 and rode that momentum.

Twice Williams served for the match, at 5-4 and again at 6-5, but Azarenka rose up to defeat the American’s serve and force a tiebreaker.

Williams raced to a 3-1 lead in the decider, but Azarenka won five of the next six points to seize a 6-4 lead and send the championship match to a third set when Williams belted a backhand long to lose it 8-6.

The third set stayed on serve until the fourth game when another double fault, her seventh of the match, sank Azarenka and handed Williams a 3-1 lead.

With the stadium crowd roaring their support for home-country favorite Williams, the American broke Azarenka two games later for good measure to make it 5-1 and then claimed victory when the Belarusian sent a backhand long on the second match point.

“Victoria, you played unbelievable,” said Williams at the trophy ceremony.

“What a great match and what a great person. Vika is such a great opponent, she’s such a great fighter. It was never over until match point,” added Williams.

The top seed collected the $2.6 million top prize and pocketed an addition $1 million bonus for having won the U.S. Open run-up series of tournaments.

Azarenka said she had been beaten by the better player.

“It is a tough loss. But the best player deserves the win today. I gave it all again this year,” said Azarenka, who lost 7-5 in the third set to Williams in last year’s final.

“We gave it everything we got.”

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Nadal, Djokovic set for another championship showdown

NEW YORK — Move over John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, the new greatest rivalry in tennis will be on display at Arthur Ashe Stadium when world no. 1 Novak Djokovic meets no. 2 Rafael Nadal for the U.S. Open title today.

Djokovic and Nadal, who have been dominant over the last 15 slams, will be meeting for the 37th time in the championship showdown, surpassing McEnroe and Lendl for the most clashes since tennis turned professional 45 years ago.

A high intensity, high energy, ball-slugging battle should be in the offing between the Spaniard and the Serb, who have staged thrilling five-setters this year in the French Open semi-finals and last year for the Australian Open title.

Asked if he enjoyed playing against Djokovic, Nadal answered with refreshing honesty.

“I prefer to play against another one,” he said with a smile. “But is what it is.

“Talking about a final, I want to play against a player that I have more chances to win. But I played against him a lot of times. Always we played very exciting matches.”

Nadal beat Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth set of their semi-final on his way to winning his eighth French Open and 12th career grand slam title.

Djokovic won their six-hour war in the 2012 Australian Open final and has since added a third Australian title in a row to take his grand slam haul to six.

The rivalry between Roger Federer and Nadal had been the foremost grudge game in the sport in recent years, but with the Swiss grand slam king fading from dominance, Djokovic-Nadal has risen to hottest in tennis.

Nadal leads the series 21-15 and has won five of the last six, but his overall edge was largely built in the first half of the rivalry when he won 14 of their first 18 matches.

The Spaniard, who missed the U.S. Open last year after being sidelined for seven months by a knee injury, has come back with a brilliant 2013 campaign.

After skipping the season’s first slam, the Australian Open won by Djokovic, Nadal has registered nine tournament victories and been perfect this season on hard courts, posting a 21-0 mark on the surface within a tour-best match record of 59-3.

“It’s always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now,” Djokovic said about facing Nadal. “He’s the ultimate competitor out there. He fights for every ball and he’s playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts.

“He hasn’t lost a match on hard court this year and we all knew that over the course of last six, seven, eight years, hard court hasn’t been his favorite surface.

“He lost three matches this year. With no doubt, he’s the best player in the moment this year, no question about it.”