NEW YORK—Serena Williams has spent some summer nights channeling her inner Rihanna while singing her lungs out until sunrise in her karaoke room at home. Stalking the world’s largest Grand Slam stage like a rock star relishing a return to the spotlight, Williams played power-chord combinations tonight in tuning up top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.
Playing with the fervor of a woman building toward a championship crescendo, Williams whipped 34 winners in a 6-2, 6-4 rout to roll into her fifth U.S. Open final. The three-time U.S. Open champion has not surrendered a set this tournament and will be riding an 18-match winning streak when she faces ninth-seeded Samantha Stosur on Sunday afternoon.
Seldom has a 28th seed been such a strong favorite against a reigning world No. 1, and Serena snuffed out any hopes of a Wozniacki upset at the outset, erasing a break point with a bold cross-court backhand that clung to the sideline like metal to a magnet before holding for 2-1.
Straddling the baseline, Williams worked cross-court combinations that sent Wozniacki careening from corner to corner in desperate pursuit of the blurring ball. It was as if the woman nicknamed the Golden Retriever for her defensive skills was running on a tennis treadmill: no matter how furiously Wozniacki pumped her legs, she couldn’t gain ground, as Williams went on a four-game spurt to seize a 5-1 lead.
Contesting her third straight U.S. Open semifinal, Wozniacki tried to engage Williams in extended rallies in an effort to draw errors, but the force and depth of Serena’s drives made those efforts as futile as trying to mute a heavy metal concert with a harmonica.
Still, the 2009 U.S. Open finalist kept fighting, breaking back at 30 for 2-5 when a sloppy Serena scattered a backhand wide. But Wozniacki found herself facing an insurmountable challenge as Williams, who possesses the most potent serve in women’s tennis history, always had a play on Wozniacki’s pedestrian offerings, and swung freely in quickly earning triple set point. Turning her shoulders into a crisp, cross-court backhand, Williams drew a netted reply to take the first set in 46 minutes. Serena hit 15 winners to none for Wozniacki in a one-sided set in which Williams wielded the last word in crucial rallies.
You can’t win without a winner, and playing not to lose is a losing proposition against Williams, who counts the lack of a significant weakness as one of her greatest strengths. Wozniacki has been maligned by those who view her as a punchless pusher running her way to the top of the game. While she should not feel sorry, Wozniacki knows better than any of us she must strengthen her shortcomings and amp up her aggression to master a major.
Though she’s endured personal trials and tribulations over the years and her devotion to the game has ebbed and flowed, Serena remains a revolutionary figure in tennis because she can dominate play off both the serve and return, and combines speed and power to create electrifying explosiveness. Before Serena, there were champions who could dominate on serve (Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf) and players who could dictate off the return (Chris Evert for her unrelenting consistency, and Monica Seles who made the return an offensive weapon), but never before has any woman wielded the dual weapons as imposingly as Serena does at her best. When she’s on her game, Williams can take the racquet out of the just about any opponent’s hands.
To be sure, this wasn’t a pitch-perfect performance. Williams littered 19 of her 34 unforced errors in the opening set, took an injury timeout for an apparent bruised big toe after the fifth game of the match, and built a 4-1 second-set lead only to stutter step near the finish line. In a late-set stumble reminiscent of her second-set lapse against fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka in the third round, Williams dumped a double fault three feet long to while serving for the match at 5-3.
Shrugging off that lapse, Williams cracked a forehand Wozniacki couldn't control to earn two match points in the next game, as the world No. 1 bounced her candy-colored Yonex racquet off the court in frustration. Stepping four feet inside the baseline in a predatory posture to return, Serena slammed one final ferocious return to seal her spot in the final.
Williams is a power player fond of playing the percentages in grading her game in post-match press conferences, but the scary thing about Serena is that she hasn’t scratched the surface of her peak play yet. Though she’s won every major title in singles and doubles, Williams is still developing her net game, and she showed solid volley skills in winning 17 of 21 trips to the frontcourt tonight. If Serena, who joked afterward that, “Usually, I come to net to shake hands; tonight I said let me try something different,” ever employs the net game consistently and starts working the short angles—as she did back in the days when she scored the Serena Slam—it will only make her more dangerous. Opponents already are often forced to hit off their back foots by the depth of her drives; if Williams can continue to exploit the width of the court as effectively as she does the depth, she will be even more difficult to derail.
Forget about scanning the Top 20 for challengers; Serena’s real rivals aren’t in the rankings, they reside in the record books. Serena is 16 days shy of her 30th birthday and one win removed from her 14th career major. Standing between Williams and the title is Stosur, who beat her 6-2, 6-7 (2), 8-6 en route to the 2010 French Open final. Williams has won four of their six meetings, including a straight-sets win in the Toronto final last month, but three of those matches have gone the distance. Stosur owns a wicked kick serve and formidable forehand, but her return game is not a strength, so service breaks should be at a premium.
The punk-rock swagger Serena showed in your younger years has mellowed slightly—Williams sometimes shows the cute curtsy almost as often as she's unleashed the ferocious fist pump during this summer-long surge. But the song remains the same: when she’s fit, focused and in fighting form, Serena still calls the shots and hits the highest notes on the Grand Slam stage.