WIMBLEDON, England -- It had to end with an ace. It just had to.
With her biggest weapon on full display, Serena Williams fired a Wimbledon record 24 aces on the way to her seventh Wimbledon final, defeating Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the semifinals on Thursday. And for the second straight match, the four-time champion showed once again why, at her best, she is head and shoulders better than the rest of the field.
Just as the defending champion Petra Kvitova did in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, Azarenka played well enough to beat 99 percent of the field. She was only broken twice in the match, protected her serve well, and even when Serena looked like she would cruise in the second set after breaking Azarenka's serve early, the Belarusian kept fighting, breaking back to level the set and then consolidating to even the set at 4-4. Intense from the first point and fighting to maintain her belief, Azarenka -- who would assure herself of the No. 1 ranking if she won -- kept pressing, holding her serve to force a tiebreak.
But if Azarenka played well enough to beat the 99 percent, Serena is very much the one percent. She is possessed with the on-court riches that other players would kill for. When she's in the zone and playing at her full capabilities, she is simply better than everyone else in every department. Serve? Best in the game. Movement? Second to none. Power? No one can match its consistency. Return? Just look at the one she hit on break point at 2-1 in the second set. Novak Djokovic would have clapped his racket. But just like the one percent -- yes, that one-percent -- it can all fall apart quickly. But not today.
That's what Azarenka was up against today and though she fought valiantly -- and in my eyes proved that it would take a player of Serena's caliber to beat her -- the match never seemed as close as the scoreline. What can you do when you're stuck watching 24 aces fly past you on the baseline (accounting for more than half of Serena's total winners). Only one service game went by without at least one ace off Serena's racket, and she punctuated five games alone with an unreturnable bullet, walking nonchalantly after every single one.
"Actually during the match I thought I didn't serve well," Serena, ever the perfectionist, told reporters. "I thought, Gosh, I got to get more first serves in. I don't think my first‑serve percentage was up there."
"I thought my serve was off, and apparently clearly it wasn't, so... Maybe I should be off a little more," she laughed.
Serena had spent four rounds playing with an air of uncertainty. Earlier last week she made it clear that the loss to Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open, her only career first-round loss at a Slam in her career, had shaken her to the core. She was pushed by Zheng Jie in the third round, escaping with a 9-7 win in the third set (where she set the previous Wimbledon record with 23 aces), and she survived Yaroslava Shvedova 7-5 in the third two days later. But since "weeding out the riff raff" as she told reporters, the insecurity has dissipated. Her win over Kvitova in the quarterfinals has righted the ship, and she's back to being the confident champion that we're so used to seeing at the majors.
After her semifinal triumph her celebration was of pure joy and exultation and not (as it had been in the first week) one of relief or survival.
This is a rejuvenated Serena, and she's one match away from finally completing the comeback from illness and injury that, in deference to her greatness, we've come to expect.
"Maybe I don't belong in a relationship," Serena mused. "Maybe I don't belong somewhere else. But I know for a fact I do belong on this tennis court."