* Williams wins 17th grand slam singles crown
* Azarenka says better player won
By Larry Fine
NEW YORK, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Serena 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.
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.”
Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Gene Cherry/Peter Rutherford