Serena Williams will take a decade of dominance and a relaxed attitude into Saturday’s Australian Open final against longstanding rival Maria Sharapova.
Williams was pushed hard on Thursday by fellow American Madison Keys – 14 years her junior but showing no fear in her first major semi-final.
The reward for the 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 victory – clinched by Williams on her ninth match point – is a 19th career match-up against the Russian No.2 seed, who has lost the last 15 on the trot.
But Sharapova could hardly have been more impressive in advancing to the decider with a 6-3 6-2 demolition job on fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
Even though she has consistently had Sharapova’s number over the years, world No.1 Williams is preparing for a battle royale in the first Australian Open women’s final between the top two seeds since 2004.
“Maria is playing great and she’s still in the tournament only because she’s a fighter and only because she refuses to give up,” said Williams, an 18-time grand slam champion chasing a sixth title at Melbourne Park and a first since 2010.
“It’s a new match and she has nothing to lose, once again.
“She has only things to gain and I feel that way, too.
“I’ve won this tournament several times.
“I don’t have to go out there and have another title.
“I want it, but it’s not life or death for me and I think that helps me to relax.”
In the second set, the 19-year-old Keys saved seven match points in a marathon seventh game which lasted for 11 minutes, forcing Williams to serve the match out.
Williams needed an ace on her ninth match point to finally close out the semi-final after one hour and 24 minutes.
“I think she’s going to be winning this tournament very soon and lots of other grand slams,” said Williams of Keys, who will join her next week in the US Fed Cup team.
“She pushed me really hard in the first set and I had to really dig deep mentally to get through that.
“She played so well when she was down and she never ever gave up.”
Sharapova has five grand slams to her name – including a sole triumph at Melbourne Park in 2008 – but an against-the-odds victory on Saturday would mark the first time she had held more than one major title at the same time.
“I don’t look at it that way,” said the 27-year-old.
“I treat each one as if I haven’t gotten to a final.
“That’s usually the mindset I have, the hunger I try to get when I go out on the court.”
When Sharapova had to fend off two break points in a long opening game on Thursday, it looked as though she would be in for a tough battle.
But the 10th-seeded Makarova dropped her opening service game and despite breaking back in the seventh game, Sharapova was able to steady and win the opening set in 48 minutes.
The second set was largely one-way traffic, with Makarova unable to put the No.2 seed under any consistent amount of pressure.
“It’s so special,” said the 27-year-old Sharapova.
“It’s been a strange road for me to get to the final but I’m here and I’m very happy.”