As Serena Williams recovered from a run at history that ended with the finish line in sight, Agnieszka Radwanska spent the months following the 2015 United States Open chasing titles all over Asia, winning in Japan, China, the Women’s Tennis Association finals in Singapore and, at the start of this year, again in China.
On the strength of her results over the past four months, Radwanska will rise to No. 3 in the new world rankings. All those matches played and won while the world No. 1, Williams, sat recharging her body and mind helped Radwanska not one whit in their Australian Open semifinal on Thursday at Melbourne Park.
Williams, playing in her first individual tournament since her semifinal exit at the United States Open, looked rested, not rusty, in a 6-0, 6-4 victory over Radwanska at Rod Laver Arena. Williams, bidding for her seventh tournament title and her second in a row, played a near-flawless first set, producing 18 winners to Radwanska’s one in a 20-minute clinic. There were 20 rallies of four or fewer shots, with Williams winning 16.
“I was really hitting just all the right shots, making little to no errors, which is kind of hard to play like that,” she said.
It is Williams’ seventh trip to the final here, but for the first time she has arrived without having dropped a set along the way. She lost 26 games in her first six matches. Williams’s most competitive match of the tournament was the opener against Italy’s Camila Giorgi, who claimed nine games. Did she see a correlation between not playing competitive tennis for four months and then not dropping a set upon her return?
“Well, I definitely think I needed the time off,” Williams said. “I’ve been going and going and going for a long time. Been really going hard since probably before the Olympics in 2012. That’s a long time. So I felt like I really committed myself, and I need to commit myself and my body and take some time off, restart.”
Williams, 34, will meet the German Angelique Kerber in the final on Saturday. Kerber, who scored a 7-5, 6-2 victory against Johanna Konta in the second semifinal, has lost five of six career matches against Williams.
“Actually I’m really looking forward to playing against Serena in the final,” Kerber said in an on-court interview. “It’s just amazing to play against No. 1 in the world in the first Grand Slam final of the year.”
Armed with the best serve and return in the women’s game, Williams on Thursday also showed off a volley as crisp as the seals on the plastic bags on her unused rackets. But what really sets her apart is her homing instinct. When the championship is in her sights, Williams rarely falters. Her semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the United States Open represented a rare slip-up for Williams, who is 26-4 in the semifinals of Grand Slam events. Her only losses have been to Vinci and Kim Clijsters at the United States Open, her sister Venus at Wimbledon and Justine Henin at the French Open.
“I feel like I’m in the semis, only one more match to go, that’s how I think,” Williams said. “I may as well give it my all.”
The last time Williams lost to a top-5 player at the Australian Open was in 2008, when she fell to fourth-ranked Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals.
Williams chased perhaps her best set of the tournament with arguably her worst. Her footwork faltered and her level of play dropped like the barometric pressure outside, as bands of rain blew through, causing the roof at Rod Laver to remain closed.
Meantime, on the other side of the net, Radwanska started serving better and hitting her returns deeper. “She started playing really well in the second set,” Williams said. ‘She started making a lot of great shots, hitting really deep. I was like, ‘I have to figure out something. I have to stay in here and start playing aggressively again and going back to what I’ve been doing all week’ and it kind of worked out.”
Radwanska’s uptick in her play won her only a short reprieve, as Williams prevailed on the last eight points of the match, including three aces and a net winner to close out Radwanska at love in the final game.
“I think everything is stoppable at some point, I guess,” Williams said. “But right now I’m really just trying to stay focused and just play, you know, in myself, not get too far ahead of myself.”
If Williams were able to win Saturday and tie Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam singles crowns, her career would come full circle. Williams’s first Tier 1 title, as a 17-year-old in 1999, came at the expense of Graf at Indian Wells, Calif. Two months after Graf lost to Williams, she won her 22nd Slam at the French Open and retired three months after that.
Does she dwell on what is at stake on Saturday or block it out?
“I definitely block it out,” Williams said. Alluding to the United States Open, she said, “I was one off last year, too. If I don’t win on Saturday, I’ll still be one off.”
At the United States Open, Williams added, “I was so stressed out. I don’t want to relive that at all.”
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