Serena Williams is on a quest and nothing, it seems, can stop her now from winning her first title in 3 years at the ASB Classic in Auckland after swatting away rising star and fellow American, Amanda Anisimova, 6-1 6-1, on Saturday.
I was definitely in the zone today. I knew I was playing a really great player and an even better person and I knew I had to come out serious. It feels really good. Serena Williams
Standing between her and the silverware is another, little known, and unsung American, Jessica Pegula, who stunned Caroline Wozniacki in her three-set semi-final, 3-6 6-4 6-0.
Williams delivered a masterclass in her’s, needing only 43 minutes to down Anisimova at her imperious best and highlighting the yawning gulf between the 38-year-old and the next generation of players led by the 18-year-old.
The mother of two-year-old Olympia said she has been working hard to juggle tennis and motherhood as she targets a 24th Grand Slam at the Australian Open later in the month.
She was all power and precision as she dominated the centre of the court and moved the teenager around, running down Anisimova’s drop-shots and blunting opportunities for the young player to unleash her telling forehand.
“I was definitely in the zone today. I knew I was playing a really great player and an even better person and I knew I had to come out serious,” Williams said.
“It feels really good. I’ve been working hard for a couple of years, my daughter’s only two, I tend to be really hard on myself but considering everything, I’m doing pretty good.”
In the first meeting between two of the top 5 American players, Williams overwhelmed the rapidly rising 18-year-old, breaking the teenager 5 times to move into her first Auckland final in just her second appearance at the event.
“I’m feeling fit, I feel like I’ve had some good matches,” Williams stated. “Long rallies, short rallies, power players, the elements. This is exactly what I needed going into [the Australian Open in] Melbourne.”
“I feel like everyone that I’ve played has been a quality player,” she added. “So I knew that I’d have to keep playing at a better level.”
The 23-time Grand Slam champion converted all 5 of her break points and saved the only one she faced in the encounter, slamming 17 winners and only firing 6 unforced errors during her dominant performance.
Anisimova, the World No 25 and a semi-finalist at Roland Garros last spring, struck 11 winners, but she was undone by 19 unforced errors, and could only win 2 of her 14 second-serve points during the clash.
Williams had little trouble racing through the opening frame, building an early 2-0 lead with blistering backhands to reach triple break point and extending her advantage.
Anisimova double faulted on the first of those, and Williams reached 3-0 after winning 11 straight points.
The top seed fended off the only break point she faced in the set with a service winner en route to 4-0, before Anisimova finally got on the board with a strong serve of her own to hold for 4-1.
This, however, only delayed the inevitable, as Williams took control of the latter stage of the opener with her forehand, using both power and deft touch from that wing, to close out the set in just over 20 minutes.
She continued her commanding performance in the second, starting off that frame by using tremendous depth on her forehand to break Anisimova for an early 2-0 lead.
A second break came to love for 4-0 and, after the top seed held to close out the 5th straight game of the set, Anisimova was staring down a bleak deficit.
The 18-year-old summoned her fighting spirit to slam a forehand winner and hold onto her serve one last time, averting the bagel, but Williams blasted a backhand winner down the line in the next game to queue up her first match point, which she converted by forcing an error with one final signature forehand.
The 7-time Australian Open champion is now just one win away from winning her first WTA singles title since becoming a mother.
“It would mean a lot to me,” Williams responded, when asked how she felt about potentially claiming the crown.
“I’ve just been working hard for the past couple years, putting everything together, so we’re just keeping it going.”
“I’m looking forward to playing [Pegula] as well,” Williams added. “It’ll be a tough match. I’ll have to bring it in the final.”
Former World No 1 Wozniacki, who will retire after the Australian Open in Melbourne, arrived at her penultimate tournament before the year’s first Grand Slam determined to add to her 30 WTA titles at an event she has never won in 7 previous attempts.
The Dane got off to a promising start, breaking Pegular twice to take the first set.
The 25-year old American, whose only WTA title came at the Washington Open last year, took control of proceedings from them on, adopting an aggressive approach that 5th-seed Wozniacki had no answer for.
She wore the Dane down in the second set, and then won every game in the third.
“It’s definitely one of my bigger wins, playing someone of that stature, who’s also retiring,” Pegula told the media, after her victory.
“I’m glad I got to play her, and I’m glad I got to come out with the win. It is definitely up there win-wise, especially to go to a final.”
In the first meeting between the two players, Pegula went up an early break in each of the 3 sets, and although Wozniacki was able to fight her way back to claim the opener, the American triumphed in the final two to claim victory after an hour and 53 minutes.
“First set, I thought, could have gone either way, just a couple close games,” said Pegula.
“Then I was able to get the momentum in the third, which is kind of what I wanted, because I know she’s a tough person to play for three sets.”
Pegula finds herself in the third WTA singles final of her career, and her first since she won her maiden WTA singles title at the Citi Open in August of last year.
The World No 82 played a strong, aggressive match, with a positive differential of 33 winners to 32 unforced errors.
“I thought I played smart, I thought I was moving pretty well, I scrambled out a couple of points,” Pegula stated.
“I thought I was picking my shots well, and kind of going off of based on how I was feeling. If things were clicking, I would go for it; if not, I would play conservative.”
Wozniacki, twice a finalist at the ASB Classic in 2015 and 2018, saw her 34 unforced errors negate her 17 winners, and leaves Auckland with only one singles event to go in her storied career, the Australian Open, where she won her Grand Slam title just two years ago.
Despite her loss to Pegula, Wozniacki will still contest a final on Sunday as she has teamed with her good friend Serena Williams to reach Sunday’s doubles championship round.
Pegula did not play between January and August 2017 after undergoing hip surgery and then eased herself back into the game at ITF events for the rest of the year, gradually rising in the rankings to the main tour where she has now snagged one the biggest scalps of her career.
“I knew if I was going to play defensive I was not going to win that battle, she’s like the best in the world at that, so I had to step in and take my chances and trust my game,” added Pegula, the daughter of NFL Buffalo Bills owner and natural gas magnate Terry Pegula.
“Caroline’s had an amazing career and I know she’s retiring so I’m glad I got to play her before she retires and I’m happy to get the win and really excited to be in the final.”