Wednesday, January 28, 2009 Updated: January 29, 6:22 PM ET
Williams reaches fourth Aussie final
By Ravi Ubha Special to ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams joked she had an out-of-body experience playing in the oppressive Melbourne heat this week.
"Like I felt I was watching someone play in a blue dress, and it wasn't me," she said following a quarterfinal win over Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The outer being must have liked what she saw Thursday as Williams dispatched another Russian, the surging Elena Dementieva, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a fourth Australian Open final in yet another odd-numbered year. A 10th major title beckons.
Probably a little less important to Williams, she can reclaim the No. 1 ranking from the disappointing Jelena Jankovic with a win over Dinara Safina in the final. Safina overcame in-form Vera Zvonareva in the second semifinal Thursday, an all-Russian clash, 6-3, 7-6 (4). If Safina prevails, she ascends to the top spot and emulates big brother Marat Safin, twice a Grand Slam champ.
Serena Williams reached her fourth Australian Open final, all in odd-numbered years.
"I'm just really excited to be in the final," Williams said in an exuberant on-court interview, her blue bag, matching her blue dress, in tow. "I don't care who I play. All my hard work is paying off."
How relieved must the beleaguered organizers be? Taking much flak for the scheduling of men's matches and initially deciding not to close the roof at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday amid South Australia's worst heat wave in about a century -- they later changed their minds -- the thought of Dementieva facing a countrywoman Saturday would probably have enticed only those in Russia.
Starlets Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Williams' sister, Venus, didn't reach the quarterfinals. The elder sibling and doubles partner gleefully looked on from the player's box. Mom and coach Oracene Price appeared as laid-back as ever.
It remains to be seen whether Dementieva, riding a 15-match winning streak and an easy winner over Williams two weeks ago in the semifinals of a warm-up tournament in Sydney, gets close to Grand Slam glory again. Only one other woman has made more Grand Slam appearances before winning a first major, Czech Jana Novotna at Wimbledon 11 years ago. Dementieva's lone two appearances in Grand Slam finals came a while back, in 2004.
"I had a good run from the beginning of the year," said Dementieva. "I played a lot of matches, and I won all of them. I feel like today I was not quick enough. I was not maybe aggressive enough against her.''
The current fortnight is beginning to resemble Williams' run in 2007, when, unseeded, she rallied against Nadia Petrova in the third round and Shahar Peer in the quarterfinals before proceeding to ease past Nicole Vaidisova in the semifinals. In the final, Williams crushed Maria Sharapova for a third crown Down Under.
This time, Williams struggled against Argentinean journeywoman Gisela Dulko in the second round and up-and-coming Victoria Azarenka in the fourth, getting help from the latter when she retired, leading by a set.
Serena out of Fed Cup
Following the announcement of the U.S. Fed Cup first round team that did not include the name Serena Williams on its roster, Williams' agent, Jill Smoller, confirmed on Thursday morning that the competition dates this year don't fit comfortably into her client's schedule.
"Correct, yes, she didn't make herself available," said Smoller, of the upcoming first-round tie against Argentina in Surprise, Ariz., Feb. 7-8. At this point she's not planning on playing, but she's totally open to it. She said that in a press conference that she looks forward to playing for Mary Joe [Fernandez, the new U.S. Fed Cup captain], but with the schedule right now, it's very difficult."
Williams, nor her sister, Venus, offered their services to play the first round, and neither sibling played in the first round last year, which falls immediately after the Australian Open.
Serena Williams last played Fed Cup in the first round against Belgium in April 2007. That tie was conveniently located in Delray Beach, which is less than a half-hour drive from her Palm Beach Gardens home.
The Fed Cup calendar for this year calls for the semifinal round to be played in April. The final is being moved from right after the U.S. Open in September to Nov. 7-8. That date switch could create issues for players competing in the year-end Sony Ericsson Championships, Oct. 27-Nov. 1 in Doha, Qatar.
Earlier in the tournament, Serena spoke in support of Fernandez's appointment as Fed Cup captain, but explained she'll likely been unavailable to play this year.
"I think [Fernandez] would offer a lot of good advice for me and things that I can probably do to help my game," said Williams, after a second-round win over Gisela Dulko, who will anchor Argentina's Fed Cup squad. "And, you know, I would love to play in the future. This year with the new schedule, the new commitments [the WTA Tour is now requiring players to include certain events on the tour in their playing plans], I don't think it's the best time for me. But I can't wait to have that opportunity."
"Oh, I definitely wanted to play better than I did the last few times I played Elena," Williams said. "And just wanted to do some different things. The last few times I played her, I didn't play that well and I was stuck, so to say."
Williams' Sydney encounter with Dementieva lasted a paltry 72 minutes, but there was little chance of that happening after the first two games under the roof, which was closed due to the 110-degree heat, making conditions faster. They lasted a combined 16 minutes, both going to four deuces. By that time, Williams had already chalked up 10 unforced errors. Crucially, she saved two break points. So did Dementieva, though she wasn't playing as poorly. The lone break came in the seventh game.
Williams' first-serve percentage has been a constant source of concern for the 27-year-old. Thursday's stats made for interesting perusing: In the first set, it stood at 45. The good news is that when it landed in, Williams won 94 percent of points. In the second, the percentage increased to 63 percent. Ten aces overall helped.
Dementieva broke early in the second to take a 3-0 lead, but the double-fault demons, who apparently had gone, revisited. Flooring Williams by wrong-footing her foe with a cross-court forehand proved scant consolation.
"I usually don't feel tumbles [until] like four days later because of the adrenaline," Williams said. "I'll be home on Tuesday and I'll be like, 'Oh, my God, my leg hurts.' I'll realize, 'Oh, that's why.'"
Dementieva served back-to-back double faults, three total in the fifth game, as Williams pulled to 3-2. More deflating, after breaking Williams from 40-15 down to level at 4-4, Dementieva uncorked two more doubles in the ensuing game, leading to an almost inevitable break.
And what a final point of the ninth game it was. Both ran side to side on the baseline as part of an enthralling 25-plus shot rally, with Williams setting up the knockout blow with a blistering cross-court forehand of her own.
Williams closed out the encounter with a thunderous overhead and then proceeded to bob up and down in a celebration.
There should be more joy Saturday.
Safina produced 42 unforced errors, the result of doing the dictating, mind you, and five more double faults to add to the dubious tally. Her ball toss is so high, the heavens probably awake. Still, the 22-year-old defeated Zvonareva for the first time in four tries in landing in a second Grand Slam final.
Just like in Paris last spring, Safina saved match points along the way; France's clever baseliner, Alize Cornet, wasted both her chances in the fourth round. Safina lost to Ivanovic in the French capital.
She trails Williams 5-1 head-to-head. Further, in their two hard-court encounters in 2008, at the U.S. Open and year-end championships, Safina salvaged only five games each time.
Safina had an explanation.
"Playing in the U.S. Open and [year-end championships], I was just not ready to play at all,'' Safina said. "There was nothing inside of me anymore. I was dead, completely.''
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.