After a couple of so-so performances against Francesca Schiavone and Maria Kirilenko earlier this week, the world number one upped her level considerably in the quarter-finals. Facing Caroline Wozniacki who beat her on hard courts in Miami last year, Serena was in magnificent form.
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it first set, she won 81% of first serve points and broke the Dane twice. Serena was hitting the corners with her backhand and forehand, and matching the famously fit Wozniacki for foot speed and stamina. Even when the sixth seed managed to add more weight to her groundstrokes, Serena put the ball back in awkward positions to keep her younger opponent under constant pressure.
And if the 6-1 opening set looked dominant, the first half of the second was even more one-sided. Another brutal barrage of winners saw Serena establish a commanding 4-0 lead, and although Wozniacki bravely scampered and scrambled for every ball, there seemed little she could do to prevent a high-profile embarrassment.
Yet despite being constantly criticised for her lack of aggression and weak forehand, Wozniacki is a tenacious competitor, and she proved her mettle on the verge of defeat. As Serena’s hitherto untouchable level dropped, the former world number one broke at the first opportunity and began to play with real intent. The result was some brilliant exchanges, including a 38-shot rally that left Serena bent over her racket, gasping for breath. At 5-4, the match had become an intriguing battle.
However, the double break cushion ultimately proved too much for Wozniacki to overcome. Serena won her final service game to love, improving her winning record over the 23-year-old to 6-1 and cementing her status as favourite for the China Open title.
The next player bidding to stop her from claiming yet another piece of silverware is one of the few to come close to Serena’s total number of match wins this year. Agnieszka Radwanska won yet another quarter-final by beating Angelique Kerber 7-6(7), 6-4 on the Lotus Court on Friday. It was sweet revenge for the Pole, who lost to Kerber in Tokyo last week, but it was also hard-earned.
Radwanska let go of a 5-1 lead in the first set as her opponent settled down and found the range on her formidable forehand. The opener eventually went to a tense tie-break, which the third seed was lucky to edge 9-7. The long rallies and clever counterpunching continued in the second, but the unflappable Radwanska did better at protecting her serve, and wrapped up victory in one hour, 43 minutes.
Saturday’s showdown will be the seventh meeting between Serena and Aga, and the head-to-head currently stands at 6-0 in the American’s favour. While there have been some routs – Serena dropped just three games in Istanbul 2012 and Miami 2013 – there have also been a couple of brilliantly entertaining battles. The three-set Wimbledon 2012 final is one, and the Toronto semi-final in August, which Serena won 7-6, 6-4, is another.
Williams at her best will be too fast and too powerful, no matter how craftily the cerebral Radwanska plays. Lengthening the odds against a Radwanska victory is the fact that Serena tends to go on mental lockdown at this stage of a tournament: astonishingly, she hasn’t lost a semi-final match since Rome 2010. We can expect Radwanska to make this one fun with her trademark slicing and dicing, but a businesslike Serena will take it in two.