She’s had a few bumps and grumps this Wimbledon but yesterday Serena Williams was serene as she coasted through to her ninth final – although the woman standing in her way of equalling a great record won’t be her sister Venus.
Serena overwhelmed Russia’s Elena Vesnina and is now hoping to draw level with Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slam titles. To do that she will have to resist the claims of Angelique Kerber of Germany who beat her to the Australian Open earlier this year.
Serena will soon be 35. Afterwards she was asked how she stays hungry for more glory, still keen on giving her younger opponents a “pounding”. “I feel like I just have this desire to be the best that I can be,” she said. “That keeps me going. I love what I do. I work extremely hard at what I do. I’m extremely passionate. That’s how I keep going.”
Her win over Vesnina – 6-2, 6-0 – took just 48 minutes. “I felt like I had no chance today,” said her opponent, who was blown away by Serena winning 96 per cent of her first serves. “She was serving 129 mph into the corner, placing it amazingly. It was so hard to read.”
Kerber, who beat Venus 6-4, 6-4, was thrilled to make Saturday’s final. And she has another incentive to win because stopping Serena would keep her idol Graf’s record intact. “Steffi was one of the greatest,” said Kerber. “I’ve met her a few times and she’s a great person. Last time she told me I’m on a good way, just to believe in myself.”
Serena was up against an opponent who emits a loud yelp when hitting the ball. It’s either “Hiya” or the Scottish exclamation, very similar, for indicating stinging pain. Perhaps at the start the normally all-smiling Vesnina, unseeded in the tournament, was saying hello to the Centre Court having made it to her first semi-final. But the result was definitely painful.
Barry Gibb – the Bee Gee and headline writers’ dream for all those useful song titles – was in the crowd, willing the Russian on to the scoreboard after Serena had raced to a 4-0 lead. She got there, slapping her thigh in relief. Vesnina was Stayin’ Alive, but only just.
She had no answer to Serena’s power, her groundstrokes and especially that forehand which seems clunky, requiring a slow wind-up, but remains the most effective weapon in the women’s game.
Any hope Vesnina might have been able to extend the match was quickly extinguished and Serena’s 11th ace set her up for match point. A win on Saturday would bring her a seventh singles title at the All-England Club.
Venus’s semi-final started in a predictably erratic way with seven of the first eight games going against service. Venus had been broken 18 times en route to the last four while Kerber’s previous match featured nine games in a row where neither player could hold. Kerber steadied first, took the opening set, and always seemed to have too much power for Venus, whose battle to get this far after an auto-immune illness had been heroic.
The crowd wanted a contest in this semi, too, but for different reasons. They’d felt sorry for Vesnina but here they wanted a champion to dredge classic shots from the memory-banks and, if this was to be her final year, leave the scene as gracefully as possible with another final appearance.
In the second set Kerber got an early break but Venus summoned the spirit to mount a comeback, keeping her shaky forehand steady. It wasn’t quite enough, though. Match point summed it up: Williams just about hanging in there but not quite able to put her opponent away, then a Kerber return from a near-impossible position to finish off.
Compared with Wednesday’s five-set epics, the women’s semis weren’t going to cause cramp or bottom-rash for the crowds. Serena was asked about equal prize money and whether the contrast between the matches merited it. “Yeah I think we deserve it – absolutely,” she said. “I mean,” she added, staring straight at her questioner, “if you happen to write a short article you think you don’t deserve equal pay as your beautiful colleague behind you?” Kerber was asked if two hours of tennis was value for money. “This is tough. You never know how matches will be. We’re giving everything on court, everybody.”
Serena also paid tribute to big sis Venus, who she dearly wanted to be playing in the final even though that’s always brought its own special pressure. “I don’t look at her, I only look at the ball,” she said. “It’s always been very difficult, especially being the younger sister. But she’s always protected me my whole life, always looked out for me both on and off the court.”