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  • TENNIS

    No. 1 Williams, No. 2 Azarenka reach Open finals

  • NEW YORK — At the end, and only at the very end, did Serena Williams face anything resembling a challenge in her U.S. Open semifinal.
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  • NEW YORK — At the end, and only at the very end, did Serena Williams face anything resembling a challenge in her U.S. Open semifinal.
    Six times, Williams was a single point from winning. Six times, she failed to come through.
    All that did, of course, was delay the inevitable Friday. On match point No. 7, Williams delivered a 107 mph service winner, then let out two shouts, a mixture of relief and rejoicing after a 6-0, 6-3 victory over fifth-seeded Li Na of China that put the defending champion back in the final at Flushing Meadows.
    "I got tight, which happens sometimes. I just needed to relax, and then when I did relax, she played some good points," said the No. 1-ranked Williams, who will face No. 2 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Sunday in a rematch of last year's final.
    "But it was a good experience going into the next round," Williams added. "If I even get a match point, I'll be ready to stay calm and just to stay focused and relaxed."
    Pursuing a fifth U.S. Open championship, and 17th Grand Slam title overall, Williams has been so dominant, so untouchable, during these two weeks that the only question each time out was how long it would take her to win, not whether she would.
    "I have been really focused," Williams said. "I set some goals for myself in (each) match and am really trying to reach those goals every time."
    Through 12 sets across six matches in this tournament, Williams has lost only 16 games (for context, Azarenka lost 13 in one match alone). According to the WTA, that's the second-lowest total of dropped games through six matches at any Grand Slam tournament in the last 25 years.
    The 31-year-old American can become the first woman to win the U.S. Open without dropping a set since — yes, you guessed it — Williams herself in 2008. She also did it in 2002.
    Williams won 24 games in a row during a particularly perfect stretch that began in the second set of her fourth-round victory over No. 15-seeded Sloane Stephens, continued through a 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal win against No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro, and concluded with a 1-0 lead in the second set against 2011 French Open champion Li.
    So what's the secret to making things competitive against Williams?
    "You've got to fight. You've got to run. You've got to grind. And you've got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have," Azarenka said. "She's obviously an amazing player. She's the greatest of all time."
    Williams is definitely bolstering her case lately.
    She is 66-4 with eight titles in 2013. Go back to the start of Wimbledon in June 2012, and she is 97-5 with 13 trophies, including three from the past five Grand Slam tournaments.
    Half of Williams' losses this season were to Azarenka, including one at a hard-court tuneup in Cincinnati last month.
    "We know each other pretty well. I know her strengths; she knows my strengths," Azarenka said. "That's what it's all about, about those turning points, who wants it more, who's willing to go for it more."
    Azarenka has lost 12 of their 15 career meetings, but she did manage to push Williams to three sets a year ago in New York. This will be the first time the same women play each other in the U.S. Open final two years in a row since Williams lost to older sister Venus in 2001, then beat her in 2002.
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