WIMBLEDON, England—Victoria Azarenka had just completed a big hold, fending off two break points to stall a potential rout and maintain her slim, second-set lead (4-3) over Serena Williams. Taking her turn at the service notch in the next game, Serena hammered down a monstrous ace.
Gingerly taking three of those familiar, curious baby steps, she passed to the other side of the notch and did it all over again. The crowd reaction was sparse and ragged; but if you want people to explode out of their seats on your behalf, you'd better give them a little time, and a little something to actually make them swivel their eyes side-to-side.
Serena hit a fault. She turned to a ballboy and gestured for another ball, then used the face of her racquet to dribble it, side-to-side. Suddenly the ball got away from her and ran quickly toward the back of the court. Which is probably exactly what you would have done, were you an otherwise cheery, rotund yellow Slazenger, subject to the punishment inflicted on your kind by Serena.
For the record, Serena's next serve was not an ace. It was something like the exception that proves the rule on a day when she whacked 24 of them—one more than her previous high, which was a Wimbledon record she set earlier this fortnight—and tickled the radar gun up to 120 M.P.H., a full 15 M.P.H. faster than her opponent was able to squeeze out of her own arm. Thus, it was a tribute to Azarenka that she actually made a match of this semifinal on an unexpectedly bright day on Centre Court. Serena would go on to win the match, 6-3, 7-6 (6), but not before Azarenka gamely mounted a high-quality comeback and almost managed to push this semifinal to a third set.
Perhaps because her serving prowess was evident from the start (Serena fired an ace in her first game and three more in the second), the rest of her game was in sleep mode at the onset. But she snapped to life in the sixth game, when it became clear that she'd have to do something about Azarenka's service games, too. From 30-40 down, Serena drove a booming backhand winner down the line, but got burned when she attacked the net during a rally, only to see an Azarenka backhand passing shot whistle by her. A fierce cross-court forehand winner got Serena back to deuce, but Azarenka saved the game.
Not so fast, Serena, Madame Whooooo seemed to be saying. And in truth, it's hard to imagine anyone who could not match Serena's 73 percent success rate on service points fighting as successful a guerrilla war as Azarenka did. She turned in a textbook example of hanging tough, which takes pluck and skill when your fate isn't entirely in your own hands. Azarenka had nearly the first-serve conversion rate as Serena, 72 percent, but produced just one ace.
Once Serena took a keen interest in breaking serve, it didn't take her long to bust through. The key game of the first set—on serve, leading 4-3—started inauspiciously for Serena; she took a tumble as she galloped toward the net. Although she rose slowly, she hit back hard—a big, looping swing launched a forehand cross-court winner got her to break point. She then ran down two sharp, cross-court backhands, the latter via two-handed Azarenka volley, and punched out a down-the-line passing shot for the break and a 5-3 lead. She held with ease for the set, thanks to two aces and a pair of mere service winners.
Madame Whoooooo had been making plenty of noise during the match, while Serena was once again wrapped in a cocoon of silence, in that fugue state players seek and describe in less highfalutin terms as "being in the moment" or "taking it one point at a time." But when Serena served her way out of a tight spot in the second game and broke for a 2-1 lead, her "Come on!" reverberated through the Centre Court. She would get louder as the match got tenser.
After another easy hold by Serena, Azarenka pushed her game to higher ground. She held, and broke for 3-all in a game where two aces weren't sufficient insurance for Serena. The key was an elevated sense of purpose and pace in Azarenka's already dangerous game. She began to move the ball really well, and relatively flat—a formula that had Serena chasing balls as if she were having to do it in a tunnel with a four-foot ceiling. Time and again, Serena had to wrench back two-handed backhands with her backside—unmistakable thanks to those purple bloomers—at greater altitude than her head. It was good stuff.
"I was looking too far into the future, and I can't do that," Serena said of that period, quickly adding that she wasn't thinking about the final as much as the latter part of the set.
As if the Serena juju were rubbing off on Azaerenka, the recently deposed No. 1 began to get a little more pace and sting on her own serve. At 3-3, Serena created a break point with an aggressive service return that Azarenka drove into the net, but a service winner to the backhand saved the game. Serena had another break point, but she made a forehand error to return to deuce, after which Azarenka forced a service return error and knocked off a service winner to stay out in front, 4-3.
The quality of play at both ends was excellent during the next few games, and the way both women were serving, a tiebreaker was inevitable. When it arrived, there wasn't a mini-break until the 13th point, even though Serena had a match point at 6-5, but wasted it with a nervy but ill-advised drop shot/lob combination.
Azarenka was the one who finally succumbed to the pressure, at 6-all. She drove a backhand into the net off a Serena service return. There really was only one appropriate ending to this match, and Serena delivered it with—what else?—an ace. The Wimbledon record for most aces in a women's tournament is 89; Serena, who has 85, seems destined to break it when she meets Agnieszka Radwanska for the title on Saturday.
Looking forward to the final, Serena told the BBC: "Radwanska. . . she's doing unbelievable, Wow. She's gonna get every ball back."
I wouldn't bet on it.