NEW YORK — At the end, and only at the very end, did Serena Williams face anything resembling a challenge in her U.S. Open semifinal.
Six times, Williams was a single point from winning. Six times, she failed to come through.
All that did was delay the inevitable. On match point No. 7, Williams delivered a 107 mph service winner, then let out two shouts – a mixture of relief and rejoicing – after a 6-0, 6-3 victory over fifth-seeded Li Na of China that put the defending champion back in the final at Flushing Meadows.
“I got a little nervous,” said the No. 1-ranked Williams, who will face No. 2 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Sunday in a rematch of last year’s final, “but I was able to close it out, finally.”
She usually does.
Pursuing a fifth U.S. Open championship, and 17th Grand Slam title overall, Williams has been so dominant, so untouchable, during these two weeks that the only question each time out was how long it would take her to win, not whether she would.
Through 12 sets across six matches in this tournament, Williams has lost a total of 16 games (for context, Azarenka lost 13 in one match alone). The 31-year-old American can become the first woman to win the U.S. Open without dropping a set since — yes, you guessed it — Williams herself in 2008. She also did it in 2002.
Williams won 24 games in a row during a particularly perfect stretch that began in the second set of her fourth-round victory over No. 15-seeded Sloane Stephens, continued through a 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal win against No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro, and concluded with a 1-0 lead in the second set against 2011 French Open champion Li.
So what’s the secret to making things competitive against Williams?
“You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to run. You’ve got to grind. And you’ve got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have,” Azarenka said. “She’s obviously an amazing player. She’s the greatest of all time.”
Azarenka improved to a tour-leading 31-1 on hard courts this season by overcoming all sorts of sloppiness to beat 83rd-ranked Flavia Pennetta of Italy, 6-4, 6-2, in Friday’s first semifinal.