Serena Williams was playing for her first trip to the Dubai final—and a 25th meeting with older sister Venus. World No. 26 Alize Cornet played the role of party crasher with exuberance, stunning the tight top seed 6-4, 6-4, to reach her first career hard-court final.
Winless in three prior meetings with Williams, Cornet served 71 percent, maintained consistent depth on her groundstrokes, faced only one break point and produced a five-game run midway through the opening set to take charge.
"Definitely the biggest win of my career," Cornet told TennisTV.com's Annabel Croft afterward. "I played a very good match. I was so into the match I didn't even realize it when I won."
The 24-year-old Nice native will face 44th-ranked wild card Venus Williams in the final.
In a battle of former world No. 1 players, two-time champion Venus crushed Caroline Wozniacki, 6-3, 6-2, to score her 14th straight win in Dubai. Venus has won all three prior meetings with Cornet, including a 6-3, 6-3 victory at the 2013 Australian Open.
The world No. 1, who lost just four matches last season, suffered her second loss of the season. It was Serena's first defeat to a woman ranked outside of the Top 25 since she suffered a stunning Roland Garros opening-round loss to 111th-ranked Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano in 2012.
Playing her first tournament since a back injury sidelined her following her Australian Open fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic, Williams contributed to her demise committing more than three times as many errors (35 to 11) as Cornet.
Typically an explosive server, Williams won just 9 of 24 points played on her second serve and was broken three times. Cornet broke for a 5-4 lead in the first set. Serving for the opening set, the 26th-ranked French woman reached set point when Williams missed a return. Cornet ended a long rally drilling a backhand winner down the line, skipping to her court-side seat with a clenched fist and one-set lead.
Cornet broke again to open the second set then quickly consolidated—winning her fifth consecutive game—to seize a 2-0 lead before Williams held at 30 for 1-2, sparking a three-game run.
Signs of nerves emerged as Williams served at 3-all, 40-30 when she approached a mid-court ball and opted for a backhand drop shot that found the net. That error was compounded when Williams hit a slice serve off the sideline, but mistakenly thought the serve was wide, stopped play and was motionless when Cornet fired a forehand return down the line for break point. Williams challenged her own serve, hoping it was out, but replay showed it struck the sideline. Cornet cracked a forehand crosscourt pass to break for the third time and snatch a 4-3 lead.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion dug in and produced some of her best tennis in fighting off four match points. She hit a backhand winner down the line to save the second match point, a slice serve to set up a smash to erase the third and a curling serve winner down the middle to stave off the fourth match point, eventually holding for 4-5 in a spirited game.
In the next game came Cornet's moment of truth: Would she hold her nerve and serve it out? Williams missed two returns in a row then whacked a wild backhand error giving Cornet three more match points. When Williams sent a backhand wide, Cornet dropped to the court in joy, rising with a wide grin after pulling off the upset.
"I was like 'Okay, you have to serve for the match, you're a big girl, you can do it,' " Cornet said. "It was not easy because I had four match points and she played amazing on those four match points...
"First of all I tried to play very deep because otherwise I knew Serena would press me a lot. I tried to make a lot of first serves and fight to the end and it worked perfectly. I couldn't dream of a better match or a better ambiance so thank you everyone."