Tough compatriot gives Williams hard-earned place in semi-finals

SERENA Williams had a tough win over the woman she’s predicting will one day top the rankings as she set up a semi-final match at the Brisbane International against current 
No 1 Victoria Azarenka.

The reigning Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic champion showed plenty of emotion on key points in a heavy-hitting duel with Fed Cup teammate Sloane Stephens on Thursday before winning 6-4, 6-3. Williams converted both of her break points and fended off one break chance against her in each set, later saying Stephens had the potential to be “the best in the world one day.”

Stephens hit the ball hard and cleanly, and got the better of some powerful rallies, but lacked experience in two key moments: giving up a set point after wasting a game point on her own serve in the first, and then dropping serve in the eighth game of the second set.

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The 19-year-old Stephens appeared to suggest in the second set that some of the animated fist pumps and “come on” calls coming from the other side were disrespectful, but later said she was just joking with her coach and accepted the warm praise from Williams, her childhood idol.

“To have someone like that who I think is one of the greatest players to ever play the game say that about you is really nice,” Stephens said. “I lost to the best player in the world today, so, you know, it’s good.”

The women’s semi-finals are set for today, with Williams getting the least recovery time.

She seemed to have trouble with her right calf muscle midway through the second set against Stephens, knocking her lower leg three times with her racket before she served at 40-0 in the fifth game, but later said she didn’t have any injury concerns.

Williams has an 11-1 record against Azarenka and was 5-0 against the 23-year-old Belarussian in 2012, including the US Open final.

Azarenka started 2012 on a run, winning the Sydney International and the Australian Open – her first major – and gaining the No 1 ranking during a 26-match winning streak.

But after a first-round exit in the French Open, Williams finished 2012 as the most dominant woman on tour. She won 34 of her last 35 matches.

With the Australian Open starting on 14 January, and neither Azarenka nor Williams playing another tournament before then, Friday’s semi-final shapes up as a classic.

“I’m going up against the world’s greatest tomorrow.” Williams said of Azarenka.

Azarenka and Williams are the only two seeded players still in contention in Brisbane after No 36-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia beat No 4 Angelique Kerber of Germany 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3) in the first of the quarter-finals, her second win over a top-ten player this week after eliminating 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the first round.

Pavlyuchenkova will next play Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine, who got into the main draw when No 2-ranked Maria Sharapova withdrew due to a sore right collarbone.