"It wasn't over until match point." That was, in a way, Serena's greatest compliment to Victoria Azarenka.
For the second year in a row, Azarenka showed that she is quite simply not afraid of Serena. For the second year in a row, Azarenka hustled, bustled, and made the world's best player look, at times, not the best at all. For the second year in a row, the US Open final ended in a three-set defeat for Azarenka to Williams. And for the second year in a row, Azarenka suggested that when the grand dame does call it a career, perhaps it will be she who rightly assumes her mantle.
The world No.2 has not been firing at her optimum level this tournament, admitting that she did "what she had to" to get through her first six matches, looking especially wobbly against Ana Ivanovic, and so-so against Daniela Hantuchova. But she brought, and left, an admirable level on Arthur Ashe, forcing Serena into situations she is not used to.
How else to explain that Serena served for the match not once, not twice, but three times before she was finally able to follow it through? She crumbled at the thought of what might come back over the net.
And there was a lot coming back over the net. Serena had dropped serve just twice in six matches before this seventh and final one. But today, Azarenka broke her four times, winning 23 of Serena's 43 second serve points.
Serena may not be at her top physically, there being suggestions that the injury she sustained at Wimbledon lingered a bit. Her serve was certainly not as it can be, seven double faults creeping in at the most in-opportune of times. But she scrambled around the Arthur Ashe baseline with abandon, no point more impressively than during the second set tie-break. With Serena up 3-1 and furious at herself at having served for the match twice, Azarenka took the net, twice, battling back to 3-3. Azarenka went up, forcing two Williams errors.
"With somebody like Serena you've got to take risk," the world No.2 said. "You can never play safe."
Unfortunately, having worked so hard to win that set, Azarenka's level fell away as Serena's rose again.
"I think it was the moment in the third set that the momentum changed a little bit, and I kind of felt like I lost that momentum," Azarenka said. "She really made it happen. In that particular moment she was tougher today. She was more consistent, and, you know, she deserved to win."
The silver lining was that there would be no dramatic collapse from a winning position, as there was last year. So perhaps this loss will hurt her less.
"The game overall, there are things could have been better," she said. "I'm not gonna lie. It hurts bad.
"But, you know, I gave my heart. I fought as hard as I could. So that's what is important for me, that, you know, I lost to a great champion, but I still gonna have my head."
Serena was not the only one who respected the way Azarenka played. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd were, as you'd expect, fully in the American's corner. But as the players posed with their trophies, they gave Azarenka her due, a reception fitting for a player who came to play. Yes she makes a lot of noise when she hits the ball. Yes she glares and grimaces and throws the odd tantrum. She has grown into herself, become a player who is solely focused and driven by her own success, and, ultimately, is not afraid to be anyone but herself. She works hard for her success too. Rather like the woman she faced on the other side of the net. And that deserves respect too.
"I think overall the match from last year is something; this match is a different story," Azarenka said. "It showed a different me as a player today. And I felt that way.
"I think when you have a bigger challenge in front of you in anything in life, you try to be better. She's my biggest challenge. I always will look in the opportunity to play against the best player and test myself and go for that challenge, and fight hard.
"So I think that, you know, it's important to just try to go for those chances. I can't wait for the next chance."
She's not the only one. Take a bow.