Serena Williams on verge of returning to pinnacle

[fragment number=0]LONDON — Delivering her serve with the power, accuracy, and sometimes maddening dance of a major league closer, Serena Williams on Thursday peppered Wimbledon’s emerald acres with a tournament-record 24 aces, three during a second-set tiebreaker, and vaulted over Victoria Azarenka, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), to reach her seventh final at The Championships.

Williams, a four-time winner at the All England Club, on Saturday will face Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska in hopes of capturing her first Grand Slam title since winning here in 2010. If she can summon the same riveting, debilitating serve, which she used to deliver her final ace to clinch match point vs. Azarenka, there would seem little doubt she will reclaim her standing as the most daunting, powerful force in the women’s game.


Bend it like Beckham? Sure, the dazzling kicks of the iconic British footballer have long been something to behold, a fitting subject for the silver screen. But in Day 10 of her golden fortnight, no one ever served it like Serena.

“Actually during the match I thought I didn’t serve well,’’ said Serena. “It really didn’t feel like I had 24 aces at all.’’

Williams, the No. 6 seed to Azarenka’s No. 2, breezed through the first set, landing the first of her two dozen aces on a second serve to close out the first game. In her second service game, she opened with a dramatic trio of aces, searing blasts of 115, 110, and 110 miles per hour, freezing the helpless 22-year-old Azarenka at the baseline en route to the 2-1 lead.

Azarenka, the only other semifinalist with a Grand Slam victory, won the Australian Open this year and is among the sharpest, cleanest, smoothest returners in the game. She is quick, crafty, bold, and confident with her shots. However, even though 3 inches taller than Williams (6 feet vs. 5-9), she doesn’t have nearly the same strength of serve and also can’t match the heavy-shouldered Williams for the speed or bite of her returns, backhand or forehand. As it played out, it became Williams the power plant vs. Azarenka the lighthouse, with the emphasis on light.


The first-set shredding of Azarenka drawing to a conclusion, a mesmerized John McEnroe, commenting for the BBC, remarked, “That might be the best set of serving I’ve ever seen.’’

It might have sounded hyperbolic at the moment, but truth was, Williams still had another 16 aces up her sleeve for the second set. Her best only got better.

“The older I get, the better I serve, I feel . . . and the more I like to hit aces,’’ said Serena.

The first set turned in the eighth game, Azarenka, yet to deliver an ace of her own, losing serve to 3-5. She won the first point, then promptly fell two break points in debt. When she tried to get cute to shoo off the first break point with a drop shot, Williams instantly spotted the ploy, thundered to the net, and ripped back a forehand for an unreturnable breaker.

The 5-3 lead in hand, Williams salted away the first set with a game that lasted six points, Azarenka getting the last touch, a baseline forehander that she misfired into the net. The undressing took only 33 minutes, with Williams mixing in a dozen unreturned serves with the eight aces.

“The serve is the one difference that brings her to the higher level,’’ said Azarenka.


Azarenka, with some $13.5 million in career earnings, reconstructed her game over the course of the second set, despite dropping to a 1-2 disadvantage when Williams broke her in the third game. It was a game that again ended with a large serving of intimidation, Azarenka landing a strong first serve at 15-40 and Williams drilling back a forehander for the win. Whatever “best’’ the Belarussian could offer, the Southern California legend countered with “better.’’

Finally, one hour in and Williams on serve at 3-2, the persistent Azarenka found a foothold back into her dream. Faced with her second break point of the game, Williams backed off for just a moment, dishing up a very soft second serve (she didn’t have a double fault all afternoon). The short volley that ensued ended with Williams long with a baseline backhander. All even, 3-3, and it remained on serve the rest of the way, Azarenka at her best in the seventh game when she twice fought off break points. Most impressive of all, she saved the game with back-to-back unreturned serves.

“I lost a little intensity and I can’t believe I did that,’’ said Williams.

In the tiebreaker, the pair held serve through the first 12 points, with Williams acing her second and fifth offerings. The day then sailed down the Thames for Azarenka on the 13th point, her serve, a brief rally ending when she fired an easy-to-make backhander into the net for an unforced error. Wrong time to offer up a gift.


The ball back in Williams’s granite grip, she locked, loaded, fired . . . and delivered ace No. 24 right down the T.


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