LONDON – Her eyes locked on the target, Serena Williams tossed the ball into the air and in a blur of explosive motion launched a 24th ace to end the brave resistance of Victoria Azarenka and reach her seventh Wimbledon singles final Thursday.
In doing so, the 30-year-old became the oldest woman to reach the final since Steffi Graf in 1999 and only Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Germany’s Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-4, stands between her and a fifth All England Club title.
The 15,000 fans packed into a sunny Centre Court gasped in awe as each Williams thunderbolt flew past the Belarusian.
To her credit, Australian Open champion Azarenka stood firm in the face of the heavy fire and she would have earned plenty of new admirers in a 6-3, 7-6 defeat.
The 22-year-old second seed even had the temerity to break the Williams serve midway through the second set as she dragged the contest into a tiebreak, but she was finally overwhelmed.
In the men’s semifinals, defending champion Novak Djokovic will face six-time winner Roger Federer Friday, while Andy Murray will take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Since Williams won the last of her 13 grand slam singles titles at Wimbledon in 2010 she fell into a pit of despair after a gashed foot and subsequent serious health problems threatened to end a golden career.
Even the often controversial American’s harshest critics would readily concede they are pleased she is back, still hungry for titles and strutting around on Centre Court’s hallowed turf.
Those trying to avoid actual bodily harm trying to return her cannonball serve may not agree, but Wimbledon would be a poorer place without her.
After patchy performances in the early rounds, Williams changed gear against defending champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals and during a clinical first set against Azarenka, she was virtually unplayable.
She began the third game with three consecutive aces before Azarenka somehow got her racket to the fourth. The game took barely a minute to complete.
Azarenka, who caused chuckles from the crowd with her mighty grunts every time she struck the ball, dug deep from a break down in the second set and pierced Serena’s armour to level at 3-3.
Showing tremendous fight she saved three break points in the next game and for the first time Williams looked ruffled.
Williams edged ahead in the tiebreak with a 23rd ace to equal her Wimbledon record, and despite wasting a match point with a lob that sailed long, she made no mistake on the second, her trusty weapon delivering the knockout blow.
Ever the perfectionist, Serena, who later reached the women’s doubles semifinals with sister Venus, told reporters: “It didn’t feel like I hit 24 aces. I actually felt my serve was off, but maybe it should be off a little bit more.
“I was just out there trying to play my game which is pretty aggressive.”
Radwanska, who not only will contest her first grand slam final Saturday but could also claim the No. 1 ranking if she wins, may want to avoid watching a Williams DVD before bedtime as she prepares for the biggest day of her career.
Williams hit more aces in one set Thursday than the Pole has struck in the entire tournament.
The former Wimbledon junior champion, who has become the first Pole to reach a grand slam final since Jadwiga Jedrzejowska at the French Championships in 1939, is not known for a power game, more the accuracy and intelligence that proved too much for Germany’s Kerber.
The third seed slipped 3-1 behind in a nervy start to her first grand slam semifinal but soon had Kerber on the run with her superior courtcraft.
After sealing the first set with an ace, Radwanska broke again early in the second and never remotely looked like relinquishing her lead.
“I’m the first (Polish) player to win in a semifinal for many years, so I think this is already a big success,” Radwanska, who lifted the junior title in 2005, said.
“And now here in the final, it’s even bigger. This tournament is already one of the big part of tennis history in Poland. I’m happy to be part of that.” — Reuters