Melbourne (AFP) – Serena Williams battled past gallant Madison Keys Thursday to set up a dream Australian Open final between the top two seeds after arch-rival Maria Sharapova demolished Ekaterina Makarova.
The best two players in the world have a long history and the odds are stacked in Williams’ favour ahead of the Melbourne Park decider on Saturday with the American holding a major psychological advantage.
She has a 16-2 record against Sharapova, with the Russian five-time Grand Slam champion losing their every encounter since 2004.
Despite the ominous statistic, Sharapova has been in outstanding touch and blew away fellow Russian Makarova 6-3, 6-2 on a blustery afternoon on Rod Laver Arena.
She is now in her fourth Australian final, having won in 2008.
Williams was made to work harder by rising American teen Keys, who fought to the end, saving eight match points.
Coached by former US great Lindsay Davenport, Keys forced Williams to a first set tiebreak before her illustrious opponent took charge to win 7-6 (7/5), 6-2.
“I was just happy to get through it today,” said Williams. “My theory now is to relax and just play the next match as best I can.”
In reaching the final at 33, she became the oldest player to make the Australian Open decider in the Open Era, surpassing Chris Evert.
It also ensured that she keeps the number one ranking she has held for more than 100 weeks. Sharapova could have claimed the accolade if she had won the title and Williams had failed to make the final.
In another warning sign for Sharapova, her rival has won all five of the previous finals she has made in Melbourne. Williams is now in her 23rd major final, and has claimed 18 of them.
The Russian is undaunted and said her confidence was high.
“I think my confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a Grand Slam no matter who I’m facing and whether I’ve had a terrible record, to say the least, against someone,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot. I will do everything I can to get the title.”
– Generous praise –
She went into her match against Makarova with a 5-0 record and always looked in control, despite intially struggling with her serve in the windy conditions.
But she soon found her groove and took charge to race home in 87 minutes.
The 27-year-old said it felt “special” to make a ninth career Slam final.
“Playing a fellow Russian and playing someone who maybe wasn’t the favourite going into the semi-final, I knew she would come out and play really well,” the reigning French Open champion said.
“I was ready for that and stood my ground and competed well.”
Going into Saturday’s showdown, Williams has the added incentive of needing one more Grand Slam title to go clear second on the all-time Open Era winners list and further cement her name in the history books.
She currently has 18 alongside Evert and Martina Navratilova and is four behind Steffi Graf’s 22.
Keys had beaten Williams’ sister Venus to reach the last four and revenge was on Serena’s mind, but the plucky 19-year-old had other ideas.
Despite being in her first-ever Slam semi, she held her own and earned generous praise from Williams.
“She’s obviously a great player, she’s going to be winning this tournament very soon and lots of other Grand Slams,” she said.
Keys said the experience of reaching a semi had been invaluable.
“It’s my first one. Just looking forward to having more. Hopefully I’ll have a couple where I’m with the trophy at the end of the week,” she said.
The first men’s semi-final is played later Thursday with sixth seed Andy Murray facing tenacious Czech Tomas Berdych. World number one Novak Djokovic plays defending champion Stan Wawrinka in the other blockbuster semi on Friday.