NEW YORK (AP) — Standing only about a foot from the net, Serena Williams wound up that ferocious backhand and pounded it away for another easy winner.
She bent down, pumped her fist and shouted “Come On” at the top of her lungs.
Quite a reaction for a shot that put her one point away from a 4-1 lead in the second set of her U.S. Open semifinal.
Imagine how she might respond if she finally gets pushed, even a little bit, in the final against Victoria Azarenka.
After Williams’ predictably punishing 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of Sara Errani in the semifinals on Friday, only Azarenka can stop the fourth-seeded American from taking home her fourth title from Flushing Meadows and her 15th Grand Slam title overall.
Azarenka arrived at the same destination as Williams but has taken a remarkably different journey.
The No. 1 seed defeated No. 3 Maria Sharapova 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 in Friday’s first semifinal and, like Williams, is seeking her second Grand Slam title of the season. But while Azarenka has been pushed in this tournament, winning back-to-back, tense three-setters in her last two matches, Williams hasn’t had to work all that hard.
She has lost only 19 games in six matches.
Still, she is heading into the final with the attitude of an underdog.
“I feel like I’m going up against — I personally think — the most consistent and the best player this year,” Williams said. “I feel like I don’t have anything to lose and it will be a good challenge for me.”
The men’s semifinals are also scheduled for Saturday.
Third-seeded Andy Murray opens the day against sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in a matchup of players seeking their first major titles, both of whom have victories over Roger Federer this summer — Murray at the Olympics and Berdych here in the quarterfinals.
The later semifinal pits defending champion Novak Djokovic against fourth-seeded David Ferrer, who is trying to make his first Grand Slam final.
The women’s final is scheduled for Saturday night, when the forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain.
On Friday, it was muggy with temperatures in the low 80s, though Williams didn’t have to worry much about conditions or anything else.
Her win over the 10th-seeded Errani of Italy turned out exactly the way it looked beforehand on paper.
Errani spun in serves at an average of 83 mph, while Williams was consistently in the 110s.
Errani hustled from side to side, retrieving balls and trying to get into long points, while Williams stayed patient — but only as patient as she had to be — setting herself up for 38 winners against only 21 unforced errors.
Williams finished with nine aces and heads into the final with 50 for the tournament. Errani’s total: Zero.
“My objective was to prolong the match as much as possible,” said Errani, who did, in fact, stay out there for 1 hour, 4 minutes.
In some ways, the mismatch makes Errani’s trip to the U.S. Open look that much more impressive. She was the finalist at the French Open on the slow red clay at Roland Garros, but her game held up on the quicker hard courts, too, and Williams, not fully pleased with her own play to this point, was complimentary.
“I definitely played better today,” Williams said. “I played better than my other matches. And playing someone like her, you have to go better.”
Azarenka, meanwhile, found herself in a completely different kind of tussle against this year’s French Open champion.
She fell behind after a nervous first set, then got a pair of breaks in the second to even the match.
These players came in with a combined 23-0 record in three-set matches this year — 12 for Sharapova and 11 for Azarenka — and something had to give.
Sharapova blinked first, falling behind 0-30 in her final service game, scratching back to save one match point, but flying a forehand long on the second.
Moments later, Azarenka was dancing near center court, knowing she’s one win away from adding this to her Australian Open title from earlier this year. In her on-court interview, she said she wished she could stay out there and keep playing.
A few hours later, she found out her opponent would, in fact, be Williams, who is 9-1 lifetime against the Belarusian.
“Well, first of all, if you look at our record, it says it all,” Azarenka said. “I haven’t won in any last meetings, so I definitely need to find something to surprise her tomorrow, because she’s in great form, feeling really confident right now.”
Williams will be in her 19th Grand Slam final, a string that began here at Flushing Meadows in 1999, when she defeated Martina Hingis for her first title.
Last year, Williams was stunned in the final by Sam Stosur, a match best remembered for Williams directing a series of insults at the chair umpire, including, “You’re just unattractive inside.”
Two years before that, Williams launched into her infamous foot-fault tirade and was docked a point on match point, ending a semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters.
When a reporter mentioned to Williams that nothing of that sort has happened this year, she replied: “Hey, it’s not done yet.”
Maybe a more appropriate question might be, Can anyone beat Williams besides herself?
“They have to play, and Azarenka is also a strong player,” Errani said. “I think Serena is another level.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
(AP Photo/Mike Groll)