WIMBLEDON, England — The marquee women’s semifinal on Wimbledon’s Centre Court Thursday promised to deliver what’s known as “big-babe tennis,” pitting the hard-hitting Serena Williams against reigning Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
But the clash between the game’s best server and one of its more formidable returners turned into a one-woman tour de force, with Williams blasting a record 24 aces en route to a 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) victory that moved her one step closer to a fifth Wimbledon championship.
The 30-year-old Williams will face Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska for the title on Saturday. Radwanska, 23, advanced to her first Grand Slam final by dismissing Germany’s Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 6-4, earlier in the day.
Williams’s 1-hour, 36-minute victory represented a stunning turnabout following her first-round defeat at the French Open last month.
But France’s Grand Slam is contested on clay, which mutes the power of big serves and thunderstruck groundstrokes. Wimbledon’s grass accentuates it. As such, it’s familiar and friendly terrain for Williams, who wll compete in the final of the grass-court classic for a seventh time Saturday and the first since 2010.
“I feel like this is where I belong,” Williams said afterward. “Maybe I don’t belong in a relationship; maybe I don’t belong somewhere else. But I know for a fact, I do belong on this tennis court.”
There was no more compelling evidence than the puff of chalk Williams sent flying with her final ace, which hit the center line as if it possessed a homing device. The victory brought her career grass-court record to 69-10 while improving her mark against Azarenka to 8-1.
Williams holds a 2-0 record against Radwanska, Wimbledon’s 2005 junior girls champion. But the two haven’t played since 2008, when the Pole was just 19.
The third-ranked Radwanska has grown into a steady, composed player despite her young age, known for keeping her errors to a minimum and pouncing on opportunities when they arise.
She started slowly against Kerber, who had been visited in the locker room the previous day by Germany’s greatest tennis champion, Steffi Graf, a seven-time Wimbledon champion.
It was the first Grand Slam semifinal for Radwanska and Kerber, and nerves were evident. But Radwanska handled the moment better, finishing with 20 winners and six unforced errors.
Asked about a potential meeting with Williams, Radwanska said: “I don’t really have anything to lose, so just going to try my best.”
Williams served brilliantly to reach Wimbledon’s final four, blasting 61 aces through five matches — 24 more than the three other semifinalists combined.
So naturally, after winning the toss, she chose to serve first Thursday.
Williams made clear from the outset she wasn’t interested in rallies. She crushed every second serve Azarenka coughed up. And through the opening set she was hardly fazed by anything Azarenka sent her way, including the high-pitched wails each time the Belarussian struck the ball.
The sound was so jarring, as if an off-key mezzo-soprano were being strangled, it drew snickers from the Centre Court crowd. But if it bothered Williams, she hid it well, closing the first set in 33 minutes and breaking Azarenka in the opening game of the second set.
Williams didn’t face a break point until the sixth game, which Azarenka won to get back on serve.
It was the American’s only moment of frailty.
In the view of tennis historian Steve Flink, it reflected a small spasm of nerves more than any failing in Williams’s serve.
“With the French Open loss, things can get inside your head, and she got tight,” said Flink, who ranked Williams as possessing the best first serve in the history of women’s tennis in his book, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time.”
Williams quickly regrouped to force the tiebreak that settled it.
“For a two-set match of that consequence, that was as well as I’d ever seen her serve,” Flink said. “Serena mixes her serve up well. She goes out wide; she goes down the [center line]. It’s hard for anybody to read that. There’s no doubt, Azarenka is one of the best returners in the game.”
Azarenka conceded afterward that Williams’s serve is unlike any other on the pro tour. And she lost count of times her serve hit the lines.
“There is no point to sit and cry how unfortunate I was because she played great,” Azarenka said. “I just have to give her all the credit because she did her job.”